Did President Obama exceed his constitutional authority by announcing on Nov. 20 his intention to limit legal action against 5 million undocumented immigrants? I’m not in a position to say, and you probably aren’t, either, given that highly credentialed constitutional scholars have contradictory opinions on this issue.
But I hope that we dismiss Republican accusations that his application of executive discretion — a power that other presidents have used — is treason or, as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put it, representative of a desire to “destroy the constitution and this republic.” Remarks like these reflect a perspective through a political lens that refuses to see anything but evil and incompetence in Obama’s every act.
I prefer to view Obama’s immigration policy through a more pragmatic and humanitarian lens. When I do, I see a young woman I’ll call Angela, who six years ago hardly said a word in my freshman composition class for the first 10 weeks of the semester. But when someone asked her why she was so interested in the question of illegal immigration, she blurted out, “Well, I’m illegal.”
When Angela was 13, her parents presented themselves and their children at the border crossing into Brownsville, Texas, and asked for permission to stay in the U.S. for two weeks. She said the agents at the border were rude, but they gave her family permission to stay for six months.
Her mother cleaned rooms and cooked at a motel in the Rio Grande Valley, and her father mowed lawns and picked up day labor. All five of them stayed in one of the rooms. They never went back.
This is the pragmatic part: For decades our economy has benefited from a porous southern border that has permitted and often encouraged cheap, dependable Mexican labor to come north to do some our country’s hardest work, work that we’re unwilling or can’t afford to do.
We’ve used this labor to our advantage, and it hasn’t been a drag on the economy. In fact, last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out that over a decade undocumented immigrants paid $100 billion into Social Security, funds that they’re unlikely ever to recover. They also paid $11 billion in taxes in 2010 alone.
Every so often — sometimes in sync with election cycles — we look around and pretend to be shocked (!) to find Mexicans among us, and we imagine that they are taking away our jobs, as well as importing ISIS ideology and Ebola.
But mostly they’re ordinary people just trying to make a better life for their families.
And then there’s the humanitarian part. While her parents worked, Angela enrolled in middle school. She didn’t speak English, so her friends told her that if an Anglo spoke to her, she should shrug her shoulders, say “Whatever,” and walk away. It worked.
But she learned English and helped her parents learn, as well… The family worked hard and settled into a routine that may have occasionally let them forget that they were illegal.
Still, when Angela’s grandfather had heart surgery, her mother had to walk through the desert around the checkpoint to visit him, emerging after three days, covered with dirt and ticks.
Angela was doing well in college and working full-time as a receptionist at a hotel. She was smart and dependable. Management wanted to promote her, but she declined, worried that more responsibility would lead to closer scrutiny of her background.
In fact, Angela’s story is industry and aspiration, qualities that America needs. But after 12 years in this country, her life still teeters between her thoroughgoing American-ness and the fear that the notoriety of a traffic stop could mean deportation for her or her parents and siblings to a land that’s as foreign to them now as it would be to us.
The hope that Obama could get cooperation next year from a Republican House and Senate is extremely farfetched. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing. That’s what the president is doing.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.