THE BLOG
11/21/2014 02:24 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

President Obama Acts to Right Wrongs That Affront Our Ideals

Look at 10-year-old Stephanie Pucheta's face on the video, sad but determined to tell her family's story. She describes the day her father was put in jail and then deported, putting a stop to his helping her with her homework and playing with her in the park. Her mother is seriously ill, but the immigration officials did not take that into account. Times are very hard for them now. Stephanie doesn't think the laws are fair, and dreams of becoming a lawyer to help immigrants get protection. She wakes up every morning, she tells us, wondering why they didn't let her father stay.

Stephanie's story is at the heart of President Obama's action to stop deporting parents of citizen or permanent resident children. Americans believe that parents should be able to raise their children. When parents and children fear each day that they may be split apart, and hundreds of thousands of parents are wrested from their children, it is an affront to our deepest values. So, after waiting more than 500 days for the House of Representatives to take up the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, the President called us back to those values and used his authority to protect children and parents.

Another cherished American ideal: that we are a nation of laws. The President acted within his legal authority to focus enforcement of immigration laws on felons, not families. Despite accusations that the President was assuming the role of "emperor," he is taking limited steps, as did Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and every other president over the past 50 years. He cannot do all that is needed on his own. Congress should send him legislation to sign, so immigrants can have a path to citizenship, with the responsibilities and benefits our nation requires and provides.

But it is a cause for celebration that the President waited no longer to take action. Nothing is more damaging to our democracy, to the American ideal, than to have millions of people unable to participate fully, unable to seek the protection of law or the full opportunities to advance. Workers whose employers fail to pay them what they are owed are too fearful to seek redress from the authorities. In 2012, there were 8.1 million unauthorized immigrants working or looking for work. In California and Texas, 9 percent of the labor force is undocumented immigrants; in Nevada, it's 10 percent. When so many are unable to stand up for their rights in the workplace, it depresses wages and working conditions for everyone. That is in part why the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate would boost the economy and increase tax revenues. A low-paid underclass of workers holds us all back.

If we want to live up to our ideal of government by law, we must provide legal status to most of those living in our communities. A few years ago, I got the chance to visit Alabama with a delegation of women leaders, to see the consequences of that state's harshly restrictive anti-immigrant law. We heard from women who were routinely stopped by police for trumped-up reasons in the early morning as they drove to work. The police knew they were denied drivers' licenses, but had to drive in order to survive. It was a cash cow for the local government: police would impound their cars and force them to pay a fine to get them back - repeatedly. Employers want their labor, but their vulnerable status creates a climate of corruption that taints us all.

And most centrally, nothing is further from the American ideal than the government wresting parents from their children. Pew Research tells us that about 7 percent of elementary school students had at least one unauthorized immigrant parent in 2012. About 8 in 10 of these children are citizens. The President's order will at least temporarily end the fear of deportation for parents who have been in the country for five years or more and who do not have a serious criminal record.

This is not all that must be done to repair our damaged national fabric. Millions of our neighbors are not covered by this order. None of the 5-plus million helped so far by the executive orders are eligible to buy health insurance through the exchanges; no matter how poor, these immigrants cannot qualify for any benefits. But this is a long journey, and immigrants know all about long journeys. Thank you, Mr. President, for taking some important steps to make our nation stronger and better.