"Mr. Obama, my family has been separated for 19 months now! You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country," yelled Ju Hong, member of a local advocacy group, Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE) at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center. "Actually I don't, and that's why we're here," responded the president. While the president was not exactly lying, he certainly wasn't telling the full truth.
In a phone interview, Ju Hong talked of the pain of separation from his family, and the anxiety for those who are still in the U.S. "My mother and older sister could still be deported," he said, and shared how they were unable to visit their ailing grandfather because of immigration status, and then unable to attend his funeral when he died.
Ju shared why he spoke out: "When I was invited to Obama's speech, I expected to hear about how to address the reality of 11.5 million undocumented immigrants and halting deportations. He didn't talk about this or other important issues like family reunification, nor did he give concrete examples of how to solve the problems of our system," said Hong. He talked of being scared that more of his family could be sent away at any time, and how it is a constant stress. "Obama talking about spending time with his family made me think about how many members of my family I won't be able to see."
Although Ju Hong has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, for his family and community, it is clearly not enough.
When Obama issued DACA, he was acting in his capacity as the head of the Executive Branch, which is the branch of government that controls all U.S. agencies. This means that ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and every other U.S. agency that is responsible for immigration and deportation is under his control.
Under the same authority he used to create DACA, he could merely expand the relief under the same legal framework: essentially, he could make it so that DACA covers a much larger group of immigrants.
This is, of course, not without its pitfalls: what one president tells its agencies, the next could easily undo without having to run it by anyone else. Because of this, while the president can unilaterally fix many of the aspects of the broken immigration system unilaterally, it can be argued it's preferable to do this legislatively.
Sparing some of the rather boring legal details of how expanding DACA would work, subject to the chain of command, agencies follow orders; similar to the military, if you have rank, what you say goes. Nobody has higher rank in the agencies that are responsible for deportation than Obama. Although Obama can act unilaterally, his authority is checked by Congress: he can tell the agencies to ignore a law, however, if Congress acts specifically to address what he has done, it overrides him.
Essentially, Obama could do this, and the only way that Congress could stop him would be to pass an immigration bill.
Here is where a bit of smart politics comes in: he could create a political bomb that is impossible to diffuse. Is Chris Christie going to want to promise Latinos that he's going to bring us back up to record deportation numbers when he gets into office? Obama could write this so that the next Democrat candidate would agree to and the next Republican would be completely obligated by his base to attack this policy during primaries. It could push serious reform, yet not be too extreme, be a victory for his team on a political scale and divide the Republican Party on the issue. It's a delicate balance, but could lead to Democrats winning the Latino and Asian vote by over 70 percent, like they did in 2012.
"All of us, all five of us, stayed in one room. There was another room where you would cook, eat and go to the bathroom in," explained one of the many immigrants at the demonstration outside of the Betty Ann Ong center who were sharing their stories. They all involved separation and loss of family, and the poverty that undocumented immigrants almost always find themselves in without the opportunity to work.
While we argue the academic and political merits, both outside and inside the debate on immigration reform at the Chinese Recreation Center, there are stories of broken families, talent not allowed to bloom and palpable pain from a thousand directions, all stemming from the same incoherent, politically perverted tangle of unnecessarily complicated laws that is our immigration system.
For details on the #Not1More campaign which Ju Hong, ASPIRE and many other immigrant and women's rights organizations are involved with, please see the #Not1More website.