WASHINGTON (BP) – President Obama’s new executive actions to change immigration policy imperil the growing, widespread agreement on reform, said the Southern Baptist Convention’s lead ethicist.
Obama announced in prime time Thursday (Nov. 20) his orders, which include most controversially a plan to protect an estimated five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The president’s actions came after years of his own contentions that he did not have the legal authority to make or ignore immigration law. He chose to act at this time after a comprehensive reform bill approved by the Senate in 2013 failed to gain a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Obama said.
The president’s decision to act on his own is an “unwise and counterproductive move,” said Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
A backer of immigration reform, Moore said in an online post for Time magazine it is because of his support for immigrants and reform that he believes Obama’s use of executive authority is “the wrong way to go.”
“On more than one occasion, I asked President Obama not to turn immigration reform into a red state/blue state issue,” said Moore, who has been in two oval office meetings with the president on immigration reform. “People across the political spectrum support fixing this system, and it shouldn’t be a partisan wedge issue. I also asked him not to act unilaterally, but to work for consensus through the legislative process.”
In his 15-minute speech Nov. 20, Obama defended his decision to act without congressional approval as a constitutional exercise of the president’s authority. At the same time, he acknowledged he continues “to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass [the] kind of common sense law” approved by the Senate. Until then, he has authority to take steps “that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just,” the president said.
There is widespread agreement that America’s immigration system is badly damaged. The system and its enforcement have resulted in an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Moore admitted he is frustrated with the House’s failure to pass immigration reform. The Nov. 4 election gave the Republicans a majority in the Senate and control of both chambers, however. Based on this “new reality” in Washington, Republicans should be given the opportunity to fulfill their assurances that they want to work with the White House, Moore said.
“My hope is that the Republicans in Congress will not allow the President’s actions here to be a pretext for remaining in the rut of the status quo,” Moore said. “Too many people are harmed by this broken system, many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ. The lives of immigrant families, made in the image of God, are too important for political gamesmanship.”
Republicans in Congress objected to Obama’s actions and promised they would act.
“With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek. And, as I told the president yesterday, he’s damaging the presidency itself,” Speaker of the House John Boehner said Friday (Nov. 21).
The House “will not stand idle as the president undermines the rule of law in our country and places lives at risk” but will work to guard the Constitution, he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., said the correct way to reform immigration “is to first bring illegal immigration under control by securing the borders and enforcing the laws, then modernizing our legal immigration system. After we do these things, we will eventually have to deal with those here illegally in a reasonable but responsible way. [Obama’s] actions now make all of this harder and are unfair to people in our immigration system who are doing things the right way.”
The ERLC has said last year’s Senate-approved bill needs repair. House committees have approved bills dealing with such matters as strengthening border and national security, providing visas for guest workers and requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check employees’ eligibility. The full House has yet to act on those measures, however.
The most divisive of Obama’s Nov. 20 actions is his policy change to enable undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States without fear of deportation in three-year increments. This order would apply to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years and are parents of either U.S. citizens or “lawful permanent residents.” Those who qualify must register, pass criminal and national security background checks, and pay taxes, according to the White House.
This action, the president said, does not cover undocumented immigrants who have entered the country recently or will in the future. It also does not provide citizenship, permanent status or the benefits received by citizens.
His actions do not constitute amnesty, Obama said. “Amnesty is the immigration system we have today -– millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time,” he said.
Other actions taken by the president include increasing resources to control illegal immigration at the border and prioritizing suspected terrorists, violent criminals and gang members for deportation.
Immigration reform advocates – who include those on the right, left and center politically — reacted in various ways. While Moore voiced opposition to Obama’s orders, some of his allies with the coalition known as the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) commended the president’s actions, though sometimes with reservations. Some reform supporters said Obama did not go far enough.
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and an EIT member, said the president’s move, “although not the preferable delivery mechanism, initiates a reconciliatory prescription necessary in addressing a de facto humanitarian crisis within our borders: millions of God’s children created in his image living in the shadows.” He called on Congress and the president to cooperate quickly to enact reform.
Obama had said 22 times in the past that he could not ignore immigration law or create his own, according to Republican reports.
The ERLC has called for reform that would provide border and workplace security; uphold the rule of law; respect family unity; and establish a path to legal status to those who want to live in this country permanently and are willing to pay penalties and meet the requirements.
In 2011, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
In his post, Moore said he prays “our churches will transcend all of this posing and maneuvering that we see in Washington.”
“Whatever our political disagreements, we ought to continue to stand with [immigrants], and to see to it that the immigrants among us are welcomed and loved,” he wrote. “Whatever happens in the White House, our churches must press on with ministry and mission.”
Moore’s post in response to the president’s actions is available at http://time.com/3597981/obamas-executive-action-immigration/.