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Why #ImmigrationAction Fails

November 22, 2014

Executive orders are either mind-numbingly boring or quintessentially political and divisive. Along this spectrum, a President may act within his constitutional authority or he may stretch the limits of constitutional propriety. In the immigration context, the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Orders represent a fundamental failure of leadership not just by Congress, or the executive branch, but by you, and me, and everyone who is screaming at their television sets, whether it’s broadcasting Fox News or MSNBC.

Historically, the most effective shifts in national policy occur because we, the public, are forced to do the hard work of reckoning with the facts and their import for our lives and our communities. Where governmental fiat fails, it’s because we fail to engage our communities in the necessary, teeth-wrenching work of examining our own complicity in social problems like immigration. In short, we wimp out, which we did Thursday night when we either blindly climbed on board the #ImmigrationAction boat or cried foul over the limits of the President’s authority. Either way, we permitted the most enormous distraction to enter our line of sight and, at least for the foreseeable future, obfuscate any real hope of legitimate, authentic immigration reform.

Prior to the President’s announcement, Nancy Pelosi asked, “does the public know the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order?” She continued, “people have to understand how presidents have made change in our country, Congress catching up, and … [the President] improving what Congress has done.” It took Congress and much of the American public 100years to “catch up” to the intent we currently impute to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That’s because no authentic change occurs by edict. If it did, I would decree myself thin and the world just. Without disregarding Lincoln’s contributions, the revolutionary, heart-and-mind-changing act requiring nerves of steel was not the Emancipation Proclamation, but Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus. This and a thousand other small, seemingly insignificant but courageous acts by ordinary people who didn’t look the other way, pass the buck to their congressional leaders, defer to those in power, or shrink from meaningful conflict were the acts worthy of hero worship. Collectively, these acts changed the hearts and minds of a nation, not perfectly and not completely, but effectively. Congress “caught up” with us, not Lincoln’s executive order.

For the common, ordinary change-makers among us, our most revolutionary gestures do not occur on national television or the Congressional floor. At present, they occur in far fewer places than they should, because we dislike sitting face to face (where we can’t avoid each other’s humanity) to discuss the thing we disagree about the most. Someone I respect once told me (I’m paraphrasing) that our founders — ornery, confrontational, sometimes ill-tempered lot that they were — intended Congress to be a place where our representatives duke it out, compromise and proverbially “make sausage,” with all the nuance and wrangling that we see perfected on the legislative floor, in committee rooms, and on news programs. Those same difficult conversations have to occur in our schools, our church halls, on our blogs, and our boardrooms, with our fathers, our cousins, our preachers and our kids. At the end of the political day, it’s our own ideological fortitude and concomitant malleability matters the most in reforming a complex, broken system like immigration. Can we have hard conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with us without dismissing and disregarding them as caricatures of their most deeply held opinions? Can we sit with the discomfort of looking two, three or four steps down the road where our unconsidered recitation of snappy soundbites may lead us? Most often, the answer is no, and we permit our political leaders to reduce complex issues to tolerable, flat, one-dimensional rhetoric and then feed it to us in digestible bites using words like “accountability” and “executive amnesty” without any real understanding of what those words mean or why they matter.

We have to point out each others blind spots and trust that these relationships, and our most ordinary forums are strong enough to sustain authentic, difficult discussions. We have to believe that it’s possible to come out of those conversations changed and I suppose we have to be willing to take some blame and examine our own poor execution and leadership when those conversations fail. Whether we relish conflict or not, we must be strong enough to meaningfully step into the political process, which is much larger and much more important than any political party. We must educate each other and listen to each other for, yes, hours at a time. And we must understand fundamentally that if we don’t, we are to blame for all the things we pin on our elected leaders and their designees.

The executive order on immigration regarding undocumented populations (there were multiple executive orders on immigration issued on November 20, 2014) were a terrible failure of leadership also because they took the pressure and the focus off of real, authentic reform. Authentic immigration reform requires us to feel tolerable pressure that compels us to wrestle with the business and security interests or national identity issues inherent in the immigration debate. Executive edicts or even successful law-making can never accomplish what we can demand collectively of ourselves and each other. Quick-fix solutions, no matter where they come from, can’t solve complex problems like how we move our immigration policies into the next century and they do not avoid the need for us, as constituents and as shareholders, to actively participate in the mind-changing work that brings us closer to center and each other. Authentic immigration reform (which may or may not be “comprehensive”) demands an answer to how we fix the car-up-on-blocks eyesore that is our broken and very legal immigration system, not just how we legalize border crossers and visa violators. All semantics aside, immigration reform is not amnesty because it isn’t just about legalizing the undocumented masses, but about fixing the dysfunction of our legal immigration system used by millions of intending immigrants and nonimmigrants who suffer the cumbersome, bureaucratic maze to the detriment of U.S. commercial interests, U.S. employers, the immigrant’s families and their pocketbooks. Some wander lost for years.

To those who think something “just had to be done,” I agree, but executive action may have been a short-sighted move. On Thursday night, the executive branch delivered a temporary political reprieve to certain populations while it landed a strong kick to the backside of an already ill-tempered Congress. When Congress recoils, and it will—because it is inherently partisan and now, also pissed off — then meaningful engagement is the last thing that will likely occur in its hallowed halls. In our democracy, Congressional fiat can undo this executive decree with specific legislative action. Congress can refuse to fund necessary appropriations, or refuse to fund other government functions, and thereby thwart implementation of the executive edict. This executive action could end up in the courts. But no matter what reaction rises from inside of the I-495 beltway, the lesson at the heart of this executive action, like others in our national history, is that lasting change doesn’t derive from legislative or executive or even judicial fiat but from a fundamental shift in basic cultural values that we deem necessary or important to our future as a nation.

In the political arena, Congress left a legislative vacuum in the immigration arena. But for the past six years, the same executive branch that on Thursday night promised accountability and common sense has failed to historically apply it in its adjudication of the same petitions it promised to “streamline” and improve. Investors and seasoned foreign business owners endure silly, counter-intuitive rigors when trying to enter the U.S. to create jobs and contribute to our economy. Adopted children of U.S. citizens are prevented from entering the U.S. by their own government’s ideological opposition to orphan adoption. We educate intelligent, insightful foreign nationals at our incredible universities who we need to fill critical labor shortages in fields like engineering and technology and yet we force them into the arms of other countries that don’t make their transition to highly skilled professions so difficult. Our government’s policy on foreign physicians actually harms our medical communities, where hospitals and clinics are understaffed because of physician shortages. Our more rural residents may not prefer “that foreign doctor” at the local hospital, but they would prefer traveling to see a needed specialist 300 miles away even less.

Those of us who call ourselves leaders within the immigration law community miserably fail ourselves and the communities we serve, every day, me included. We make little or no effort to move outside our own ideological ivory tower and we refuse to do the very thing we expect our leaders to do: take personal risk and rally consensus. We want minds to change but we don’t want to do the hard work of speaking up within our communities, with people we know, not just among our ideological kin, but with people who don’t agree with us, and encourage new ways of thinking about old, intractable problems from the positions of authority we already hold, within the spheres of influence we already occupy. Even individuals in formal immigration advocacy organizations that operate on the national stage and wield attorney membership roles in the thousands accomplish their most useful, best, efficient and meaningful work, from this practitioner’s perspective, in the boardrooms and government halls where they meet with government officials person to person as liaisons and intermediaries. How much more could we accomplish if we stopped relegating politicians and formal leaders to the categories of idiot, bigot and a few other eardrum-busting swear words and instead demanded more of ourselves as advocates? What if our conferences were venues for collaboration, education and change-making engagements with the government and not pulpits from which we spew politicized rhetoric and heap blame? What if we bring our leadership best to the table, more often and with less political rancor, with the goal of educating ourselves and government officials about how policies affect real people in real cases? This isn’t wussing out. This is showing up, powerfully, at its best and brightest. It is the sort of work done by countless, unpaid attorneys who participate in bar association liaison or government advocacy committees and it is the most important work those organizations do for immigration attorneys, government agencies, and the populations both serve.

No matter where we fall on the political spectrum or on the immigration continuum, from pro-comprehensive immigration reform to “send them all home,” we naturally tend to surround ourselves with those who agree with our position and who make it easy for us to feel right. We lampoon our ideological opponent’s positions and reduce them to ridiculously simplistic, one-dimensional epithets. Our elected and appointed officials are the worst for modeling how to marginalize the opposition in 5 seconds or less. Few speak in anything other than generalized rhetoric intended to motivate and encourage a loyal base of voters and advance their party. But here’s the worst part — we permit ourselves to be corralled into one political fence or another because we refuse to have necessary and important high stakes conversations, sometimes with our leaders, sometimes with each other, and other times, with ourselves, about the very thing we’ll scathingly post on Facebook. The same psychological dynamic that occurs in families when values collide — conflict avoidance, stonewalling, aggression — happens in our government, and in our social media circles and in our offices and around our kitchen tables. At some point, we decide either that its easier to agree and mimic the snappy sound bites on “our” side rather than wrestle with difficult but necessary conflict or we decree that we have no political power, so what’s the point? Neither is true, and so long as we embrace these errant beliefs, we are giving away any authority we have to affect authentic social change. We are either disenfranchised victims or emboldened members of an ideological tribe with a pre-made set of presumptions about the “other” side, by whatever name we call them. When we reduce each other to caricatures of the positions we hold so incredibly dear, we are all huge leadership losers.

This isn’t a call to kumbaya. I’m not asking us to all sit down and talk in soft voices. Certainly, I’m not pleading with us to all “just get along.” My premise is that the only way to greatness as a community, and as a nation, whether we’re discussing immigration or health care or education, is to talk to the people we politically and ideologically marginalize as often as possible about the things we disagree on the most. What I’m asking, I suppose, is that you avoid your mother’s well considered advice to avoid politics and religion (and also, immigration) at the dinner table.

This article has been reposted from Christine Lockhart Poarch’s blog post on Medium, titled “Why #ImmigrationAction Fails”

Christine Poarch

Written By Christine Poarch


A frequent speaker on immigration law, Christine serves on the Board of Governors of the Federal Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section and has worked extensively on the section’s legislative proposal for immigration court reform.

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