As Presidents before Him, Obama Has Authority to Act
Op-ed authored by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez and Zoe Lofgren
Univision published today an op-ed authored by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez and Zoe Lofgren outlining why President Obama has existing legal authority and historic precedence through executive action to help reform the nation's broken immigration system.
Last year, the Senate passed a bipartisan measure to repair our broken immigration system and strengthen our economy. That bill would be law today, but Republican leaders in the House refused to allow a vote. Consequently, President Obama promised to use his authority under existing law to achieve reform. We do not know exactly what the President will do or when he will announce it, but we are confident he will act.
Some Republicans claim the President has no authority to act, but they are wrong. The fact is, just as presidents before him, President Obama has broad authority to make our immigration system better meet the needs of our country and reflect our shared values. And every Administration since President Dwight D. Eisenhower has used executive authority to do just that.
In addition to taking steps to make our immigration enforcement efforts more humane, there are dozens of reforms that the President can adopt. Two that could have the greatest impact involve the expanded use of his deferred action and “parole” authorities.
Presidents have broad authority to defer removal when it is in the national interest, and past presidents have regularly used this authority. In the years immediately following the enactment of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took bold action to protect the spouses and children of people who received status under that law. Although Congress explicitly chose not to grant status to these people – an estimated 1.5 million people – Presidents Reagan and Bush recognized that it was not in the national interest to separate families. Using their authority to establish a “Family Fairness” program, they offered spouses and children indefinite protection from deportation and work authorization.
Presidents have used this authority repeatedly in the face of congressional inaction. Dating back more than 50 years, presidents have granted Extended Voluntary Departure to nationals of more than a dozen countries, including Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Poland, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Uganda. President George H.W. Bush granted Deferred Enforced Departure to Chinese nationals after the Tiananmen Square massacre even though he vetoed a similar bill passed by Congress. Several years later he granted the same status to 200,000 Salvadorans.
Likewise, President Obama could defer action against persons who would be covered by the Senate-passed bill that Republicans blocked. Like Presidents Reagan and Bush, he could use his authority to prevent family separation – this time of undocumented close family members of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, or DACA beneficiaries. Similarly, he could recognize that it is “essential for agriculture” that farmworkers who toil in our fields do so without fear.
Another broad authority under existing law the President has at his disposal is to “parole” persons into the country “on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”
Once again, this authority is not unprecedented. Presidents Ford and Carter “paroled” into the country hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both used “parole” authority for families who were ineligible for or denied refugee status. President George W. Bush also created a program to “parole” into our country Cuban nationals who would otherwise be forced to wait abroad for a visa number. President Obama recently announced plans to create a similar program for certain Haitians.
Similarly, the President could “parole” into the country the spouses, sons, and daughters of American citizens and lawful permanent residents who face lengthy separation waiting for a visa. Doing so would not permit family members to skip the line, but it would allow them to wait in line with their family until a visa number becomes available.
Last year, the Administration also formalized a policy of paroling “in place” the spouses, children and parents of military personnel and veterans already here in the United States. Through parole in place, military family members who entered the country without being inspected may become eligible to obtain lawful permanent residence without having to leave the country for ten years. This corrects a gross unfairness in immigration law that overwhelmingly harms persons from the Americas.
The President can build upon his “parole in place” policy for military families to benefit countless other mixed-status families. He can similarly use this authority for immigrants whose talents are so great that they can create jobs here in America, who are part of significant research, innovative efforts or professional work that makes our economy stronger. These initiatives are of significant public benefit to our country.
Those who oppose immigration reform would have us believe that administrative action amounts to “rewriting the immigration laws.” We all know that no president can rewrite the laws. But it is important to remember that Congress and the Constitution give presidents broad authority to take executive action on immigration policy, and past presidents have used this authority generously. That President Obama has pledged to do so as well is not cause for consternation, but is consistent with a president’s well-established authority under existing law.
Although it is ultimately the job of Congress to reform our immigration laws, we nevertheless look forward to the President’s bold and meaningful action to improve the lives of Americans and immigrants alike and advance the interests of our nation.