By Joe Guzzardi
November 21, 2014
President Obama’s Thursday evening announcement that he will issue an executive order protecting about 5 million illegal immigrants from the possibility of deportation took me back to the first weeks I spent in Lodi.
My initial assignment for the then-Lodi Adult School was to teach an English as a second language class for immigrants who applied for permanent residency under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
Under the conditions of IRCA, applicants needed to spend 40 classroom hours enrolled in an English language class. Upon completion, the instructor would administer a basic conversational skills oral exam and a simple civics test — “Who was the first U.S. president?”
The classrooms were packed. Not everyone came regularly. Most, instead of staying on after 40 hours to improve their skills, took their completion certificate and never returned. But at least the hundreds of students who passed through the Adult School got an introduction to English that was part of IRCA’s quid pro quo.
Unlike Obama’s executive action — which represents a unilateral decision by the president to confer legal status, work permits and government-issued photo IDs to millions of illegal immigrants — Congress debated and then passed the IRCA.
Despite its good intentions, IRCA failed in its stated purpose of ending or at least limiting future illegal immigration. At the moment Reagan signed the legislation, the U.S. illegal immigrant population was effectively zero; only a small handful failed to take advantage. But it grew to an estimated 12 million nearly three decades later.
The reason IRCA failed is simple. Border security improvements never happened, and employers were neither fined nor jailed for hiring illegal immigrants. Since crossing the border was never a challenge, aliens kept coming and unscrupulous employers continued to hire them, often in non-farm payroll jobs that displaced American workers. The Pew Hispanic Research Center’s most recent research found that about 8 million illegal immigrants are in the nation’s work force, with nearly 2 million of them living in California.
Most of today’s Capitol Hill buzz is about whether Obama’s order will withstand legal challenges, including what may happen if one reaches the Supreme Court. Republicans and some Democrats contend that immigration is Congress’ domain, and the executive branch can neither ignore existing laws nor write its own.
Legal scholars are of two minds. Those who defend Obama say that he has both precedent established by his predecessors — Reagan and George H.W. Bush — as well as prosecutorial discretion on his side. They argue that just as police officers don’t cite every traffic offender, neither does the president have to deport every illegal immigrant.
Obama’s critics, however, insist that granting prosecutorial discretion to 5 million aliens stretches discretion too far and more closely approximates rewriting the law. Reagan and Bush used executive power only on behalf of a few hundred thousand.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats and a University of Virginia Law School graduate, sums the conflict up this way: “I have constitutional concerns about where prosecutorial discretion ends and unconstitutional executive authority begins.”
The furor over Obama’s action will dominate the political landscape for months to come. Hard to believe though it may be, immigration politics will become more contentious. And there’s the distinct possibility that if the GOP prevails in court, Obama’s executive order, which is only temporary, would be nullified. If that happens, the work permits will be invalidated. Chaos would follow.
One thing is certain: Obama enjoys the congressional confrontation and loves the spotlight which, some say, is a greater motivator than his concern about enforcing or not enforcing immigration laws.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Adult School in 2008. He is currently a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]