The Blog

Meddling with Driver's Licenses and Rebooting S-Comm: Sec. Johnson Failing Key Tests on Immigration

It's no secret that President Obama could heal the pain of immigrant families facing separation today with the stroke of a pen. But instead of taking action now, the president has ordered a "review" of deportation policies.
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It's no secret that President Obama could heal the pain of immigrant families facing separation today with the stroke of a pen. Using his indisputable executive authority, he could halt deportations, provide temporary relief to millions, and put powerful pressure on Congress to finally get its act together.

But instead of taking action now, the president has ordered new Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct a "review" of deportation policies - apparently, a rather lengthy one - to see whether the nation's massive deportation machinery can function more "humanely."

With immigrant parents still torn from their children every day, the big question is this: will this review result in meaningful relief for suffering families?

Or will it spawn yet another memo in a long line of toothless declarations of priorities which ICE agents ignore with impunity?

Last week, immigrant leaders got a troubling clue to what the answer might be, when Secretary Johnson inexplicably chose to meddle in a related issue of paramount importance to immigrant communities here in California - the design of our new driver's license for undocumented immigrants.

And this week, reports that Obama and Johnson will "reboot" rather than scrap the infamous "S-Comm" deportation program - despite court rulings that its linchpin feature is unconstitutional - cast further doubt on whether immigrant families will ever see "change we can believe in."

These developments point to two key principles in the fight for immigrant rights: states and local governments need to keep leading the way on inclusive immigration policy. And all of us need to keep up unrelenting pressure on the Obama administration to do the right thing.

First, let's look at how DHS is trying to meddle with California's licenses.

The fruit of a 20-year community struggle, California finally passed legislation last year to end the unjust exclusion of undocumented residents from driver's licenses. The new law will take effect in January 2015, and help some 1.5 million people safely get to work and worship.

But just before the bill made it to the governor's desk, controversy broke out. Should the license for undocumented Californians be "marked" so as to comply with a controversial federal law called "Real ID?" In the end, legislators and the governor struck a delicate balance to comply with Real ID while minimizing the potential for discriminatory treatment. The front of the license would have one letter different - DP instead of DL. The back would clarify the license isn't for official federal purposes.

Inexplicably, Secretary Johnson's staff rejected the design and demanded a much more prominent "scarlet letter" upon the license, common sense and community concerns be damned.

Dozens of community groups - and 19 members of Congress - are pushing back on DHS.

If this irrational rigidity on the part of Obama's DHS sounds familiar, it's because it is.

Irrational rigidity (mixed with a hefty dose of deception) also was the name of the game with DHS' roll-out of the so-called "Secure Communities" or S-Comm deportation program.

But ultimately, the backlash to S-Comm sparked a vibrant grassroots movement, which is now curbing deportations across the country with measures like the TRUST Act and even more expansive local policies.

These twin fights to win licenses and push back on deportations are, fundamentally, the same fight - for dignity, for respect, and for the principle that all people are created equal.