- - Friday, April 25, 2014

If the Obama administration is serious about working with Congress to reform America’s immigration system, it has a strange way of showing it.

Last April, Eric H. Holder, leader of America’s premier federal law enforcement agency and the only sitting Cabinet member ever to be held in contempt of Congress, declared: “Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is absolutely essential. This is a matter of civil and human rights.”

In January, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson concluded that awarding U.S. citizenship to illegal immigrants is “frankly, in my judgment, a matter of who we are as Americans.”

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s public career has been marked by efforts to dismantle immigration-enforcement measures. Last month, Vice President Joe Biden declared: “You know, 11 million people that [sic] are living in the shadows. I believe they’re already American citizens.” Perpetual presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently praised as “incredibly brave” a self-professed illegal immigrant who said it is “extremely difficult to empower myself to get a job, to vote.”

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to provide a “uniform rule of naturalization.” The immigration laws lay out the blueprint by which noncitizens may become Americans. As the Supreme Court has recognized, “Drawing upon this power and upon the inherent power of a sovereign to close its borders, Congress has developed a complex scheme governing admission to our Nation and status within our borders.”

No less a liberal icon than now-deceased Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for a majority court: “[a]t the least, those who elect to enter our territory by stealth and in violation of our law should be prepared to bear the consequences, including, but not limited to, deportation.”

Americans understand that the high honor of U.S. citizenship is earned, not commandeered. Polls reflect bipartisan recognition that immigrants who willfully violate America’s laws are entitled to compassion, not citizenship. Yet the Obama administration has embraced the view that the immigration laws are more hortatory than mandatory.

“Prosecutorial discretion” has evolved into “statutory nullification.” Executive officials publicly delegitimize immigration statutes they are bound to enforce. The administration now threatens additional “executive action” if Congress does not ratify its effort to subvert the law.

The administration’s conduct has broad consequences. It diminishes the significance of American citizenship. It abets general disrespect for the law. It demeans the service of federal law enforcement officers who risk — and have sacrificed — their lives to uphold the law. It punishes legal immigrants who play by the rules.

It sends a message to millions who seek lawful entry that the surest way to become an American is to violate our laws. It gives unlawful immigrants false hope that citizenship issues from executive decree. It defeats chances of legislative action by undermining the confidence of Congress. Perhaps this is the goal.

The House Republican leadership is currently weighing whether this administration “can be trusted” with immigration reform. But many properly wonder how this administration could be trusted when the attorney general, secretary of homeland security and vice president have determined that illegal immigrants are already entitled to U.S. citizenship.

How can Congress work with this administration to establish a “path to citizenship” if those charged with enforcing the law insist that illegal immigrants should be treated as if they are “already American citizens”? Given this track record, why would Congress expect the administration to change its approach to immigration enforcement after possible enactment of reform legislation? Even the House GOP leadership is not so naive.

It is clear that our immigration system must be overhauled. Labor participation rates remain at historic lows. Working- and middle-class wages are stagnant. The educational system is failing to produce the highly skilled workers needed to maintain U.S. economic competitiveness.

If the administration is genuinely interested in a legislative solution, viable reform legislation must be preceded by verifiable enforcement of existing immigration laws and unequivocal executive affirmation of their validity.

Congress should accept no less. This is not “too hard” for House Speaker John A. Boehner and other prominent Republicans. It is called “leadership.”

The American family remains strong, resilient and welcoming. Lawful immigration revitalizes the American spirit. America will remain a beacon for all who seek freedom so long as we have the courage to preserve our founding principles.

Americans expect executive officials and members of Congress to honor their oaths. Defend the Constitution. Enforce the law. Protect the integrity of American citizenship. And get on the pathway to reforming our broken immigration system. Now.

Robert Neira Tracci served as chief antitrust counsel, and chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the House Judiciary Committee.

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