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Five Things President Obama Can Do--Today, Without Congress--to Make the Immigration System Better and Re-Write His Legacy

Now that the House has folded up its circus tent and gone home for summer, it's clear that if President Obama wants immigration changes, he'll have to make them on his own. Fortunately, the President has wide authority to do so.
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Now that the House has folded up its circus tent and gone home for summer, it's clear that if President Obama wants immigration changes, he'll have to make them on his own. Fortunately, the President has wide authority to do so. Here are five things the President can do today, without Congress, to protect families, promote growth, and rewrite his legacy.

1. Expand "Deferred Action" to More Qualified Immigrants.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA--the deportation reprieve offered to qualified undocumented youth in 2012--is the best example of how executive authority can make an unworkable immigration system more workable. DACA has given hundreds of thousands of DREAMers the opportunity to participate fully in their communities, and the entire country is benefitting. The program could be expanded to other immigrants, including parents of DREAMers and U.S. citizens who pay application fees and go through background checks. If they make it through, they can apply for a work permit. If not, they're subject to deportation.

Presidents of both parties have used Deferred Action in various ways. It should be used now to cover the broadest group of people possible until Congress finally does its job and enacts full immigration reform.

2. End the Catch-22 that Keeps Many Immigrants from Becoming Legal.

Most people think that if an undocumented immigrant marries a U.S. citizen, he/she can get a green card. That's both right and wrong. Many immigrants who qualify for a visa must apply abroad, not from within the US. But when they leave, another part of the law bans them from returning. This legal Catch-22 can be resolved through a process called humanitarian parole for immigrants in and outside of the U.S.

Maria Perez is a U.S. citizen mother whose husband, Brigido Acosta Luis, was deported last year. Brigido qualifies for a green card, but is banned from the U.S. for at least ten years. He can get an exception to that ban if DHS grants him "humanitarian parole."

At a Capitol Hill briefing earlier this year Maria asked: "At what point did deporting immigrants trump my rights as a US citizen, or my children's rights . . . At what point did it become more important to deport a peaceful, productive human being than to let my children be happy and grow up with a father?"

It makes no sense to let one part of the law hurt an American family when another part says they should reunite. The President has used his parole authority before, and should do it again to avoid this cruel contradiction.

3. Make Family Unity the Rule Rather than the Exception.

Some immigrants that are eligible for green cards first have to prove that their deportation would impose "extreme hardship" or "extreme and unusual hardship" on their U.S. citizen or lawful resident spouse, parent, or child.

The Administration has taken a conservative view of what "hardship" means. A new interpretation could recognize that separating parents from (American) children or spouses from (American) spouses is, by nature, an extreme hardship. A pro-family interpretation of the standard would ensure that, absent negative factors, more families remain whole.

4. Ensure that DOJ and CBP "Get the Memo."

Implementation of the "Morton memos" on prosecutorial discretion has been spotty across Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. But the Border Patrol and Department of Justice haven't even "gotten the memos."

Earlier this year, local police called the Border Patrol on Alfredo Ramos Gallegos, who was found riding in a car without immigration papers. Despite his twenty-four years in the U.S. and three citizen children, Border Patrol and the US Attorney deemed Alfredo an "enforcement priority."

The U.S. Attorney (an employee of the Department of Justice), began prosecuting Alfredo for "illegal re-entry," a federal felony. After a sustained media and organizing campaign, Ramos was released and the charges were dropped. His case exposed a major deficiency that the President must correct. Implementation of prosecutorial discretion needs to be fixed within ICE, but it also needs to be adopted within Border Patrol and DOJ. Immediately.

5. Adopt a Pro-Business, Pro-Growth Approach Toward Visa Decisions.

The President has ample authority within the immigration law to promote entrepreneurship, investment, and revitalize our economy. He can do so by ensuring that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency charged with adjudicating business visa petitions, pursues its mission with an eye on economic growth and job creation.

As Mr. Obama has pointed out time and time again, a legislative overhaul of our laws is needed. Yet, Congress has been absent long since before it left town last week. Now the President must fix as much of the immigration system as he can, within the law.

There's plenty of room for President Obama to lead.