Immigration Reform - Obama's Great Civil Rights Challenge

Nels Johnson

To paraphrase President Johnson’s sage words, if a President can’t use the remaining two years of his Presidency to push with all of his might for civil rights, then what the hell’s the presidency for then, anyway?

Last week President Obama spoke in Dallas, Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His remarks centered on President Lyndon Johnson’s extraordinary achievements for civil rights and how President Johnson accomplished as much as he did in five short years.

President Johnson’s fight for civil rights legislation is extraordinary. He was thrust from the position of a backwards, afterthought of a Vice President into the leader of the free world overnight. Against the advice of his senior advisors, President Johnson decided to double down and use his huge account of political capital to force the passage of President Kennedy’s languishing Civil Rights Act. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson rued, “we’ve lost the South for a whole generation.” He was only partially right; Democrats have probably lost the South for a lot longer than that. President Johnson went on to pass more pieces of major legislation around civil rights and voting rights. He also used Executive Orders to expand civil rights as well.

Despite the many truly transformational accomplishments and civil rights advancements brought on by The Great Society, President Johnson left office a disgraced and broken man. His approval rate during his final months in office was 40%, one of the lowest of the modern era. It’s taken a generation or two for historians to truly appreciate how he transformed civil rights and gave opportunity to millions upon millions of Americans.

America has made great strides, but the fight for civil rights is far from over. Immigration reform is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time. Thousands of families are torn apart every year through America’s draconian and unjust deportation policies. At least 13 million people in American are forced to live in the shadows for fear of deportation. America’s immigration laws are a complicated, ineffective mess. Most agree that we need a comprehensive overhaul of our broken immigration system, one with a true pathway to citizenship. President Obama laments that he can’t accomplish comprehensive immigration reform on his own; he needs a willing partner in Congress.

Though President Obama can’t fix America’s broken immigration system on his own, he can do plenty to make it more humane. Early into his first term, the President made a calculation that the only way Republicans would work with him on comprehensive immigration reform would be if he demonstrated how tough he was on those that were here without legal status and those attempting to illegally cross the Border. He has rightfully earned the nickname the “Deporter-In-Chief” for deporting nearly 2 million people (far more than President George W. Bush) thus far. The President’s vigorous deportation strategy has ripped apart millions of families. Parents who have been in the country for 20 years or more, gotten jobs, paid taxes and raised healthy families have been forcefully deported in scores, leaving their children to oftentimes fend for themselves.

The President’s aggressive approach has yielded literally nothing in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. But it’s not too late to change to more humane policies when it comes to immigration enforcement. In the summer of 2012, President Obama showed the power the Presidency has when he issued a directive granting certain undocumented children deferred action and a work permit (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA). President Obama would do well to extend the benefits of DACA to the millions of those who would qualify for relief under the Senate bill that was introduced last year. He could also make deportation policies more humane, and allow greater prosecutorial discretion. There is nothing stopping him, all of this could be easily accomplished through Executive Order.

History is filled with powerful presidential accomplishments through Executive Order. Lincoln freed all the slaves living in the Confederacy through the Emancipation Proclamation, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration through E.O. 7034, and Truman desegregated the armed forces with E.O. 9981. More recently, President Clinton ordered the federal government to address environmental justice in minority and low-income populations through E.O. 12898. Presidents have shaped history though the use of Executive Orders. President Obama can do the same for immigration reform.

If current polls are any indication, President Obama is likely to leave office as one of the least popular and most divisive presidents in American history. Time will judge the merits of his Presidential legacy in due time. But if he wants to be remembered as a champion for civil rights, he should view his inevitable unpopularity as the liberation needed to dedicate all of his dwindling Presidential days to fighting for the advancement of civil rights. Nowhere is the fight more prescient than on the immigration front.

To paraphrase President Johnson’s sage words, if a President can’t use the remaining two years of his Presidency to push with all of his might for civil rights, then what the hell’s the presidency for then, anyway?

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