This past week, the president defended his stance on immigration during his annual State of the Union address:
[P]assions still fly on immigration, but...no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child...it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
The president recognizes that America owes its very substance to immigration. After all, every single non-Native American in our nation today was, at some point, an immigrant. What is also important to note is that immigration naturally means change; new ideas and cultures come in and contribute to our own. This is one of the reasons that America has been an exceptional nation.
However, the president also points out the precarious balance between the rule of law and this inevitable change. Law maintains order and reminds us of the principles upon which our nation is built. Whether you subscribe to natural law, common law, or a social contract theory, this law plays a necessary role as the curator of a nation’s heritage in order to protect it from erosion. If immigration is an important part of that heritage, then the law should preserve it and make it as easy as possible for people to come and contribute to our nation.
So the final question remains: Does the president have the authority to decide whether the law adequately provides for immigration? Mistretta v. United States gives the Legislative branch the power to delegate some portions of its authority to the Executive. I have already discussed the president’s power under the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Additionally, Article II Section 2 of the Constitution gives the president the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.” So it seems that the president has the authority, at least by some interpretations of the law, to take the action he did, especially since it pertains directly to enforcement, rather than pure policy-making.
So it appears that the president’s action set us in a new direction in the realm of immigration policy, while appealing to those core principles that most Americans cherish. I would argue that his action achieves the balance between permanence and change.
Of course, the immigration issue won’t go away, because there are other important but unanswered questions. What do we do with immigrants who are caught at the border? Will illegal immigrants currently living inside our borders receive citizenship? How will we make our nation more open to those who are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families?
These are questions the president’s action doesn’t answer. It’s the job of the federal government as a whole—Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary—to address them within the coming years. However, it’s only when we accept our nation’s heritage as a land of immigrants, recognize that change is necessary to a growing society, and respect our laws without crushing people’s dreams, that we can restore the principles that have made America exceptional.