Obama vs. Bush on immigration and the case against ‘executive overreach'

The real Americans

Every so often, when I need to be inspired, I go to an old red-brick building near the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

A century ago, it was a convent associated with St. Anne's Church.

That's the oldest parish in the city, by the way, and if you walk inside, you can catch a glimpse of the bones of a former French immigrant, through the cracks of a rough-hewn wooden casket.

The bones belonged to a Roman Catholic priest named Gabriel Richard, who, among other things, helped found the University of Michigan. The convent today is full of people who, hopefully, will soon be officially American. They are the people America was founded for in the first place, those fleeing persecution elsewhere.

The place is now called Freedom House Detroit, and it currently holds 40 people from at least 18 different countries. All or nearly all have been tortured; many have been raped, including the men. Somehow they escaped, somehow they show up here, sometimes clutching a dirty piece of paper with the address.

Then, the staff takes charge, getting the refugees food, clothing, medical assistance, and helping them begin the process of filing for asylum. What few realize is that any refugee who lands here and can prove a well-founded fear of persecution has a right to asylum.

Freedom House's residents, then, weren't directly affected by President Obama's executive order on immigration. Their futures will be determined by a federal court in Chicago.

But when I asked executive director Deborah Drennan what she thought of it, she told me, laughing, "Can I just set off some fireworks to celebrate?" She was thrilled.

Drennan, a native Detroiter who has been keeping Freedom House running on a shoestring for more than five years, not taking a paycheck during the worst of the recession, has spent her life helping those who need it most, from women prisoners to the homeless.

Immigrants, however, have a special place in her heart. When the president announced a program under which five million of the so-called "illegals" could stay and work without fear of deportation, she was thrilled, calling it a welcome "positive movement forward."

In the next breath, however, she noted it was not enough. "We wish the administration could have extended its action to asylum seekers caught in administrative backlog and the children fleeing gang violence in Central America," she said.

What's frustrating for Freedom House residents, nearly all of them penniless, is that they aren't allowed to work while they're waiting for their cases to be resolved — and some of those cases have been pending for years. This isn't just about money; many are highly skilled professionals who could make a contribution to this community, and God and Duggan know Detroit needs it.

The executive order on immigration President Obama announced Nov. 20 stemmed from one of the rarest modern qualities in politics: common sense. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented aliens in our country today. As Obama put it on television that night:

"Let's be honest — tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn't realistic. ... It's also not who we are as Americans. After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs.

"They support their families ... as my predecessor, President (George W.) Bush once put it: 'They are a part of American life.'"

That reference was no accident. Both Bush and Obama tried to get Congress to pass immigration reform, and failed. I remember nodding when I heard the president say, "The vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith and lead responsible lives."

But that wasn't Obama last month; that was Bush eight years ago! Though they never passed his legislation, the Republicans who controlled Congress made polite noises at the time.

This time, they hypocritically responded by rushing off to file lawsuits. I asked Rick Kaplan, the former president of both CNN and MSNBC, about this.

"I don't like a lot of what Obama has done," he said, adding that he didn't vote for him. "But it's perfectly obvious that a whole lot of this is because he is black, and they can't stand having a black president."

Speaking of voices from the crypt, moments after the president's speech, I got an email from Rick Santorum, whose political future exists solely in his own addled mind. "Tonight's announcement by the president is just another in a long line of power grabs by this administration," the former failed senator from Pennsylvania whined.

Santorum, whose name has been immortalized to mean something else, said that issuing an executive order to help people and protect our economy was "an unconstitutional attack on our liberty," and "executive overreach (that) must be stopped."

Damn right! How dare that black boy be issuing an executive order! The truth is that Obama has issued far fewer than most recent presidents — only 193 so far in nearly six years. George W. Bush cranked out 291 in two terms; Ronald Reagan, 381.

Thomas Mann, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution, is one of the nation's leading experts on Congress.

He said that what the president did was perfectly proper, even admirable. "The president's executive actions on immigration are limited, contingent on statutory authority ... and temporary.

"They can be replaced by legitimate congressional lawmaking or a successor in the White House. This is less a power grab than an acknowledgement that the country is far from the post-partisan politics [Obama] promised in his initial run for the presidency."

Not that this is especially the president's fault, Mann contends. "Republicans have never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency or demonstrated any weakness to enter into negotiations with him" to tackle any of the major problems, including "a widely broken immigration system."

Mann found it laughable that "now that the president has decided to use his well-documented constitutional and statutory authority to ease, temporarily, one of the most difficult and painful problems facing the country, Republicans are shocked."

Republicans are right about one thing they're saying, though it's not clear if they really mean it: Laws are, indeed, better than executive orders. And President Obama agrees.

When he issued his order, he said, "I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common-sense law. But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president ... that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just."

Well, that leaves the ball in the Republicans' court, doesn't it? They'll control both houses of Congress in 2015. Now all they have to do is actually make some difficult decisions and pass a law.

Let's see how long it takes them to do it.

Last word on the election: The other day I talked to Lon Johnson, state Democratic party chair, whose strategy of winning the governor's race by boosting turnout apparently failed miserably.

Turnout was less than four years before, and the Democrats lost. Yet Johnson, while admitting he had oversold their victory prospects, he said he won't really know what happened till he can figure out exactly which voters did show up.

But he raised a more compelling question: "We need to ask what the role of political parties is going to be in a post-Citizens United world," where there are no limitations on how much big corporations and special interests can spend to influence elections.

And that's something we should all think about. A lot.

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