Today’s column is the sort of heart-to-heart talk I deliver to my daughters on occasions that demand the unvarnished truth.
But today I am not writing to my daughters. If you are a young person who was brought to the United States illegally as a child and have lived here ever since, I am writing to you. I hope you will not tune me out because I use the word “illegal” to describe the manner of your arrival. I do not judge you, since you probably had no choice in the matter, and I do not judge those who brought you, since they were surely doing the best they could for you. I will refer to you as a Dreamer, as in one who would benefit from the DREAM Act if it were enacted into law.
You are the kid who cried after your team lost the game because a ball rolled between your legs. You are the teen who earned pocket money by babysitting toddlers or by mowing lawns beneath the hot sun. You shared a stage with my children in a play or a chorus. You may have lost a sibling who served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe you went there yourself. You are part of our community. I care about you, and I am not alone.
Unfortunately, you know only too well that there are those who want to use you to advance their own interests. Some would sell you cigarettes. Some would sell you guns. Some would sell you out.
Last week, President Obama announced that, by executive order, his administration will not seek to deport you if you meet certain requirements, one of which is that you come forward and apply for this forbearance every two years. This makes you happy; America is your home and you do not want to be forced to leave. I am happy for you, too. But I am also concerned, because what may seem to be a favor today might someday harm you and those close to you.
I wish I had a crystal ball, so I could know whether it is in your interest to accept Obama’s offer. I don’t. I can only look at the facts and circumstances, and explain why I think you should be wary.
I am about to give you two contradictory pieces of advice. The first is to pay no attention to what the president says and pay a lot of attention to what he does. The second is to examine, very closely, what the president said when he made his announcement.
“Now, let’s be clear,” the president said Friday. “This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. This is not a permanent fix.”
On this point, I believe Obama was honest. He told you all the things his offer is not, but he did not tell you exactly what it is.
My opinion is that the offer is a trap, in effect if not by design.
Why? Because this president who says he has your interests at heart is the same president who has deported 1.2 million people over the first three years of his term. He said his administration would focus its deportations on criminals, but you live in the community, and you know that the Obama immigration enforcement machinery has been indiscriminate and relentless.
Those who oppose your presence will argue that the president is breaking the law by refusing to enforce it. I believe they are incorrect. The executive branch has a lot of discretion over how aggressively to prosecute violations, including your immigration status. If the president chooses not to have his administration deport you, you will not be deported.
So why did it take more than three years - and more than 1 million deportations - for the president to conclude that you should be allowed to remain? Why does he not extend this same courtesy to your hard-working, generally law-abiding (apart from immigration law) parents? And why does he require you to step forward and identify yourself? By doing so, you must expose yourself and your family to immediate expulsion the moment this president, or a future president, or a court, changes the policy on deportation once again. If he really wanted to protect your future, this president could simply tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement to leave you alone until the law is changed.
Accepting his offer will force you to play a sort of political roulette. If Obama loses his election campaign, you will be at the mercy of his successor. If he wins, you may be safe - but only for a few years. Sometime in the next five years, the Obama family must leave the White House. Your goal is to avoid being forced to relocate when the Obamas do. Why is he putting you in more jeopardy by forcing you to apply for recognition?
The administration will argue that it is so you can be granted legal permission to work, as well as to live, in the United States. I think this is false. The administration can choose not to exercise its power to deport you, but it cannot assume Congress’ power to write the law that would convert your status from “illegal” to something else. Obama seems not to care, but employers - like me - will have no idea what to do with a piece of paper that says, “This Dreamer has no right to live or work in the United States, but we choose to disregard this fact, so you are free to hire her.” I am obliged to hire only people who are legally authorized to work here. If I hire you, will I subject myself and my company to prosecution when this president, or another, changes the rules again?
You are not stupid. You know the president hopes his new show of compassion will bolster his campaign, just as when he suddenly decided to support same-sex marriage a few weeks ago. I think the president hopes he can salvage Florida with his bold step on immigration. I live in Florida, and I doubt this will work, because most of our Latin population is Cuban and Puerto Rican. Cubans are automatically granted legal residence when they arrive here, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens from birth. So while the president’s order will generally be popular with Latino voters, I do not think it will change the outcome in Hispanic-heavy swing states. I think it may hurt Obama, however, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, without which the president has no chance of winning a second term. If you want to know why I think the president’s new position will hurt him in those places, just Google the terms “Hazleton, PA” and “illegal immigrants.”
You also should consider that under Obama’s policy, even a small violation of the law might lead to your expulsion from the United States. You will not have an American passport or visa, so you will not be legally free to visit your relatives abroad if you wish to return. If Obama deports your parents (perhaps by using the information he demands that you furnish), you might never see them again. Yet you are evidently supposed to be grateful for this policy, as the Obama administration hopes to win enthusiastic support from Latino citizen-voters.
One more thing: Immigration has been a political thorn for Obama, and for politicians of both parties, for years. I believe this executive order is Obama’s way of washing his hands of it. Now he can say he has done what he could, and the problem belongs to Congress, which has not been able to deal constructively with immigration law for the past 25 years.
You deserve better. So do your families. So, for that matter, does America. Your presence makes our country stronger and richer, culturally as well as materially. We ought to have a more open and welcoming immigration policy. The cure for illegal migration is legal migration, not taller fences and more deportations. But there are many Americans who disagree. They are not wrong to insist that their voices be heard and that their country’s laws be respected. Those of us who support you are going to have to wage a long campaign to win hearts and minds on your behalf.
I cannot tell you how to respond to the president’s proposal. Your future is too important and my wisdom is too imperfect. But I can tell you, in good conscience, to be careful. Some of us really care what happens to you. I believe the president has demonstrated, by word and deed, he does not.