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Time To Use That Pen

President Obama telling reporters before a Cabinet meeting that he has a pen and a phone.
President Obama telling reporters before a Cabinet meeting that he has a pen and a phone.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” President Obama likes to point out: A pen to sign executive actions and a phone to convene outside groups to support those actions if Congress fails to move on the nation’s urgent problems.

Well, Mr. President, when it comes to immigration reform, it’s time to wield that pen.

It’s been over a year since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform by a vote of 68 to 32, with 14 Republicans joining all the Democrats in the majority. The Senate measure provides a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the United States, and it addresses border security, employer hiring, and an entry-exit system to aid the government in tracking foreign nationals when their visas expire.

Yet the House, dominated by the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party, has failed to act. Speaker John Boehner refuses to even bring the Senate measure to the floor, and this summer conservatives rebelled against Boehner and the rest of the feckless Republican leadership to prevent passage of emergency spending legislation to address the border crisis.

Clearly, Congress has been unable or unwilling to act on immigration reform, an inability or unwillingness that is not likely to change since the looming midterm elections dominate the remainder of the congressional session.

The president has promised to step into the void. In late June, Obama said he would use his executive power to alter drastically the nation’s immigration system. He said he would take such action — by the end of the summer — because Congress has been derelict.

“While I will continue to push House Republicans to drop the excuses and act — and I hope their constituents will, too — America cannot wait forever for them to act,” Obama said. “I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.”

Despite vowing to act by late summer, reports indicate the president is considering delaying plans to revamp the immigration system by executive action. The issue is not whether to act, but when, with administration aides debating whether action should come before or after the midterm elections.

“Some of these things do affect timelines, and we’re just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done,” Mr. Obama says. “But have no doubt, in the absence of congressional action, I’m going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”

When he does act, the president likely will lift the threat of deportation from millions of immigrants, including those with children who are citizens, and those with jobs, no criminal records, and strong community ties. Obama has the legal authority to conduct immigration policy. Congress has ceded the president discretion to enforce immigration laws, and it has provided him with the tools to deport up to 400,000 undocumented workers a year, which he has done, much to the consternation of Hispanic groups and others. Congress could have directed the president to deport everyone in the United States without proper papers, but it has refused to authorize the billions that would require.

It is proper and lawful for the president to use the resources at his disposal to target felons, violent criminals, and people who are threats to public safety and national security, and then leave the reminder alone. Any decision to defer deportations would be temporary, and Congress could at some future date pass legislation undoing any decision the president makes now.

Most Democrats support executive action on immigration, but a few embattled incumbents running for reelection in red states fear a backlash. Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska worry that presidential action would stir the wrath of the Republican base and doom their prospects.

On the other hand, a major announcement on immigration reform would mobilize progressive Democrats and encourage Hispanic voter turnout. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado might well benefit from a pre-election proclamation.

One other benefit from acting now: The right wing will explode, reviving talk of impeaching the president. Impeachment is unpopular among every segment of the voting population save for extreme right wingers; any talk of the dreaded I-word will benefit Democrats.

The political arguments for delay are thin, and acting now may be the politically savvy thing to do.

Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

So, Mr. Obama, use that pen now, and sign an executive order on immigration reform.

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