The Obama administration, which is currently deporting a record 400,000 people each year, took a minor step to protect immigrants. Now many Republicans are accusing him of treason. “Potential illegal immigrants may surge across the border making it difficult for the border patrol,” Rep. Candice Miller, R-MI, said at a recent hearing.

Under a new policy instituted in August, immigration agents and judges are supposed to use more “discretion” when deciding whether to deport someone. Immigration enforcement has allowed for some discretion for “appealing human factors” since 1975, but under the new rule the government is explicitly focusing on deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. People, who have studied hard, have family members who are U.S. citizens, or have lived in the United States for most of their lives, are a lower priority.

In September, I was shackled with an electronic device during a routine check-in with immigration authorities. Based on my personal experience, I can assure you that the authorities and their contractors aren’t applying this “discretion” across the board.

But Republicans in Congress have responded as though this new policy, which isn’t even fully in force, will crush the immigration enforcement system.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that new policy isn’t some kind of “administrative amnesty.” That’s the term that anti-immigrant Republicans apply when they think the immigration bureaucracy is creating a path to citizenship – without the requisite action by Congress.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa led the charge, calling the new policy a “blatant attempt to circumvent Congress.” His counterparts in the House of Representatives have made similar accusations. Some lawmakers have even proposed temporarily removing certain immigration powers from the executive branch.

The “Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation” (HALT) Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX, would suspend discretionary forms of immigration protection and relief until January 21, 2013. Does that date ring a bell? It’s the day after President Barack Obama’s first term (or entire presidency, depending on what happens at the polls next year) comes to an end.

Among other restrictions, the HALT Act would take away the administration’s ability to protect the most vulnerable immigrants. It would condemn all undocumented people to deportation for the slightest of infractions – or no infractions at all. It would tell people who know only this country that they simply can’t prove their American identity.

By law, the Obama administration can’t act alone to grant a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But there’s something the federal government should do: pass an executive order to grant relief to the groups that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has identified as deserving “discretion,” thus allowing those least likely to be deported to apply for legal work permits.

The Obama administration is waging court battles around the country to block efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict immigrants’ civil rights. Infamous “papers please” laws in Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia could foster racial profiling. Many Republican members of Congress and their counterparts in state legislatures seem united in their zeal to accelerate Obama’s record deportation rate.

They’re eager to take away the powers of the executive branch in order to do so.

In the same way that Obama directed ICE to exercise discretion in preventing people’s deportations, he can order immigration authorities to allow those same undocumented immigrants apply for legal work authorization.

This next small step would take people out of their legal limbo and into a position where they can better contribute to our society and economy.

It would also enable Obama to rise above the empty rhetoric and provide a common-sense solution to a long-standing national challenge.

Matias Ramos, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman fellow, is a formerly undocumented student and a co-founder of the United We Dream Network. This article originally appeared in Other Words published by IPS.



Matias Ramos
Matias Ramos

Matias Ramos is Director of Programs at Harvard University's student-run non-profit, Phillips Brooks House Assn., was an organizer for SEIU Local 615, and was the 2011 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.