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Obama Must Abandon 'Tougher than Bush' Approach on Immigration

07/07/2014 11:32 am ET | Updated Sep 05, 2014

Will the president stand with hateful minutemen -- or with our nation's best values?

Recently, President Obama not only threatened to deport thousands of refugee children, but also asked Congress to gut key legal protections for youth fleeing severe violence. Interestingly, the president who signed those protections into law wasn't Obama, Clinton, or Carter, but George W. Bush.

Unless we step up the pressure, the president seems poised to repeat the worst blunder of his first term on immigration policy: trying to be harsher than Bush in order to appease an anti-immigrant fringe.

That approach is politically unwise -- and morally unacceptable. Isolated extremists who spew hate at buses filled with refugee mothers and children will always demand more suffering, no matter how far the president bends in their direction. Even the architect of Obama's deportation policy, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, long ago lamented restrictionists' constant efforts to "move the goalposts" on immigration reform.

After commemorating the 4th of July, we need to urge the president to uphold the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with certain basic rights. How we treat these refugee children and families will reflect our commitment to these values.

How did this "tougher than Bush" strategy come about?

Back in 2009, the Obama administration sought to outdo the painful immigration record of G.W. Bush's later years. Obama's DHS turned a tiny pilot program for the "Secure Communities" deportation program into a nationwide dragnet, expanded the use of (unconstitutional) immigration holds, and hit record-breaking deportation numbers. It also replaced in-person workplace raids with "electronic" raids or I9 audits which have actually pushed even more immigrants out of work.

Presumably, the theory was to start with these harsh measures to eventually win support from anti-immigrant legislators for a sweeping reform that would include positive elements for immigrant communities. In addition to the unacceptable moral and practical costs of 2 million broken families, civil rights violations, and damaged community-police relations, it simply didn't work.

Fast forward five years, and even the president has acknowledged that the legislative strategy is dead for now. He's announced he will act on his own. We hope he'll take desperately-needed measures to bring relief from deportation to millions of immigrant community members.

But once again, while the president's announcement relegated positive changes to some later time, his first concrete actions are to focus deportation resources -- and the accompanying human rights abuses -- even more at the border. And somehow, despite the fact that the vast majority of child refugees are eligible for humanitarian relief under existing law and shouldn't be locked up in detention facilities, the president has announced he'll send them all "home."

For extra measure -- perhaps, one last attempt to bring some type of legislative movement back from the dead -- the president even asked Congress to roll back protections under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008. Again, that's the law signed by President Bush. It makes sure these vulnerable children have the right to basic due process and can have a judge fully review their cases.

We have to remember, these are traumatized children literally fleeing for their lives from brutal violence. We must uphold our longstanding tradition of providing humanitarian relief to people whose lives are literally at stake.

To be sure, some have said that we must address the root causes of the child migrant crisis. I couldn't agree more. While it might be hard to accept, when we take a deeper look at the crisis, we'll see that this nation hasn't lived up to its best values abroad. Actions taken decades ago which toppled elected governments and supported brutal regimes have led to a crisis of instability and severe violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In fact, apart from the US, other nearby nations -- Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize -- have seen a 432 percent increase in asylum applications from these three countries.

It's time for President Obama to "lean in" to this issue instead of trying to appease extremists. The president should uphold the principle that all people are created equal by taking bold action to protect immigrant and refugee families. His very first step should be to ensure that refugee children's rights are fully upheld, not trampled.