A delegation of U.S. bishops traveled to Nogales, Arizona, in April to say Mass at the Mexican border and call attention to the human cost of the broken U.S. immigration system: dangerous conditions at the border; separated families and unaccompanied children; underpaid and exploited workers; fearful immigrant communities. Cardinal Seán O’Malley preached in English and Spanish on the parable of the Good Samaritan. “We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert,” he said. Then, he and his fellow bishops distributed Communion to worshippers reaching through the border fence, in a powerful image of solidarity.
The bishops’ “Mission for Migrants,” which included a later Mass in Washington, D.C., was meant to pressure Congress, and especially the House of Representatives, to move forward with immigration reform. The Senate had passed a bipartisan reform bill in 2013, but House Republicans refused to bring it up for a vote. Even as the numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border surged over the summer, Congressional Republicans fought legislation addressing the crisis and characterized cooperation with Obama’s proposals as “surrender to a lawless president.”
This is the context in which Obama went ahead with his recently announced executive action on immigration. Critics have labeled it “amnesty,” but its scope is rather modest. It provides no path to citizenship and only temporary relief from the threat of deportation for certain groups—undocumented parents of children who are U.S. citizens, and some young adults who were brought to this country as children. Approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants could find relief under the new regulations, but more than 6 million would remain at risk of deportation.
In response to concerns about executive overreach, the administration released an analysis by the Office of Legal Counsel (.pdf) that frames the new orders as a legitimate extension of existing laws designed to ease the impact of immigration enforcement on American citizens and their families. Rather than withdrawing resources from enforcement (which the president could not do without Congress’s approval), the new order directs the Department of Homeland Security to focus those resources on deporting criminals. Obama called it a step toward “accountability”—a chance for undocumented residents to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” obtaining official permission to reside and work in this country.
Because the order is necessarily temporary—and subject to reversal by the next president—it remains to be seen whether those to whom it offers some reprieve will be willing to risk coming into the light. Their situation will remain precarious until Congress can be persuaded to once again take up comprehensive immigration reform, a prospect that seems highly unlikely before the end of Obama’s presidency. GOP leaders have complained that, by acting unilaterally, Obama “poisoned the well” and ruined any prospect of bipartisan cooperation. But while Obama challenged Congress to respond by “pass[ing] a bill,” he acted only after House Republicans made it clear they had no intention of doing so.
Unfortunately, the humanitarian conditions that urge action on immigration reform appear less important to legislators than the politics surrounding the issue. Having won a majority in Congress, Republicans now must choose between actively opposing a policy that could improve the lives of many American citizens—specifically, children whose parents might otherwise be deported—and allowing the president to claim a measure of success on immigration. Those political calculations are no doubt a significant factor for Obama. But in his November 20 announcement, the president leaned on the humanitarian case for immediate action. As is customary whenever the subject comes up, he reminded his listeners that the United States is “a nation of immigrants,” but he also framed American identity in terms of our obligations to our neighbors: “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works together to keep them together?"
These are the terms on which the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders have been pushing for progress in Washington, and they ought to keep advocating for comprehensive reform. Giving voice to the excluded is a powerful use of their office, not to mention a major part of Pope Francis’s agenda for the church. But advocacy alone has not yet been enough to produce a law. If Congressional Republicans want to argue that reforming the immigration system is their job, they now have the opportunity to prove it. Obama’s initiative will make a difference for a few million American residents, if only temporarily. But if it can provoke Congress into passing a reform bill, it will be a true miracle. It will also be a victory for Obama—but Congress should do it anyway.