A step in the right direction

President Barack Obama's executive order deferring deportation for some 5 million undocumented Americans -- and they are Americans in every way that being an American matters -- is a step in the right direction, but only a step. Those affected by the measure will not be put on a path to citizenship or even to a green card, but at least they will not have to fear being separated from their families by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent every time they leave their house. (See Page 1 for details of the order.)

The president is right to act with an executive order in this instance because, despite Republican posturing about bipartisanship, there is no evidence that a Republican-controlled House and Senate will act on immigration reform at all. The American people not only support comprehensive immigration reform by large margins, including a pathway to citizenship, they also believe, by even larger margins, that Democrats and Republicans need to work together to solve the nation's problems.

In 2011, four Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate did just that, passing a comprehensive reform bill that no one thought was perfect -- a good indication that they attained the available compromise -- but which almost all agreed was far better than the current system. Sixty-eight senators voted for the bill. You can't get 68 senators to agree on the weather most days.

Since that time, the leadership of the GOP-controlled House has refused to bring the Senate-passed bill to the floor for a vote. They know that the votes exist to pass it: All Democrats would support the bill and about 70 Republicans would also. But 70 is not half of the GOP caucus and Speaker John Boehner is unwilling to break the so-called Hastert Rule, named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., which holds that you only bring up bills that have the majority support of the GOP caucus.

Most Republican House members represent highly gerrymandered districts that do not contain a lot of Latinos. All of them worry about a tea party challenger in a primary. They know that, given demographic trends, unless their party sheds its anti-immigrant stance they will never win another presidential election. But their short-term political interest trumps the long-term interest of their party, to say nothing of what is good for the immigrants and good for the country. We do not think Boehner should be denied Communion, but we hope he examines his conscience long and hard.

It must be noted that the president's action is not free from political cynicism. During his re-election campaign in 2012, he repeatedly told Latino audiences that he could not relax his exceedingly harsh deportation policies without congressional authorization. Then, this past summer, after promising action, he delayed until after the election so as not to harm the re-election prospects of key Democratic senators in conservative states, a move that backfired.

We believe the president means it when he says he has been moved by the fears of undocumented Americans, but those fears have existed for all six years of his presidency, and his decision to finally take action now is not without its obvious political motivation.

Obama also called for increased border security and promised to get tough on those who came to the U.S. recently and those who plan to come subsequently. Again, this may be the kind of political posturing thought necessary, but it is deeply cynical. The people who came three years ago and the people who came 30 years ago are all human persons, worthy of dignity and respect. And further militarizing the border is clearly not an answer to the nation's immigration problem.

We have been heartened by the response from the nation's bishops. In Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez took to his Twitter account as Obama spoke, praising the president's action and urging the House to pass comprehensive reform. "I welcome @WhiteHouse's action because it will provide some relief for millions of people who are in great need," the archbishop tweeted. "But the relief is not permanent and the problems are still not fixed."

In Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley praised the president's action and to those affected offered Catholic Charities' help in signing up for protection from deportation. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami watched the president's speech live with a hundred immigration lawyers and invited the media to watch it with him.

The supportive statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had the added heft of a quote from conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz praising the president's actions. That statement was time-stamped 9:05 p.m., less than an hour after Obama concluded his remarks, further indicating a sense of urgency on the bishops' part.

The situation is urgent. It is time to bring the comprehensive immigration bill up for a vote and send it to the president for his signature. It is time to begin fixing our broken immigration system. Unfortunately, it appears that the only thing more broken than our immigration system is our political institutions, stuck in paralysis, devoid of leadership, incapable of recognizing, let alone pursuing, the common good.

The separation of powers was designed to produce moderate government. Instead, beholden to its tea party wing, the GOP has used its control of one branch of government to produce no government. It is a shame. At least, by Obama's actions, some 5 million people will be paying less of a price for that dysfunction than previously.

It is not nothing, but there is more work to be done and both the immigrants and the nation have waited long enough.

This story appeared in the Dec 5-18, 2014 print issue under the headline: A step in the right direction .

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