The Pen is Not so Mighty After All

“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Barack Obama was fond of saying, and he was fond of using both of them in order to get what he wanted—as he did with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to what is now undoubtedly his great embarrassment: Donald Trump has a pen, too, and yesterday he used it, “unwinding” the program in the same way it was wound up.

This is a richly-merited end to DACA—not because of the so-called “Dreamers” it covers, people who certainly merit our sympathy and our prayers if not necessarily our full-fledged noblesse oblige, but because of the progressives who believed that an executive order was a suitable substitution for genuine immigration policy. It is not, it never was, and Donald Trump, whatever his convoluted and probably half-thought-out reasons for doing so, is right to end it as an executive policy.

The Left prefers, and is infatuated by, executive action (at least when it is done by other liberals), in no small part because the Left is, generally and increasingly, hostile towards constitutional republicanism, preferring, as George Will once wrote, to “dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.” The executive gimmickry surrounding Obamacare has been a perfect example of this: the birth control mandate issued on high from an unaccountable DHS, Obama himself unilaterally grandfathering in your health insurance plan after he lied about your being allowed to keep it (“I wonder if he has the legal authority to do this,” said Howard Dean at the time), the repeated employer mandate delays.

DACA followed the same playbook—an end-run around representative government in favor of favorable political optics—though to listen to the responses to Trump’s decision, you would imagine that the flimsy executive order were more akin to a constitutional amendment that Trump somehow repealed all by his lonesome. “Trump just turned DACA into a ticking time bomb for 800,000 immigrants,” blared Vox, which is a funny way of putting it—it wasn’t Trump, after all, that issued a temporary piece of non-legislation that provided limited deportation deferral for nearly a million people. If your response to yesterday’s change in immigration policy was to say, “How could Trump be so cruel?” you might consider asking yourself as well, “How could Obama be so comically shortsighted?”

The genius of the American system was supposed to be a political framework that avoided such political pitfalls—that the executive branch, while retaining certain energetic prerogatives mostly related to national defense, was supposed to be largely hamstrung on the political issues that require substantive deliberation and representative accountability. A compassionate approach to immigration might have looked less like a royal edict and more like the kind of boring, mildly tedious parliamentary horse-trading that is, or at least should be, a staple of American political life. We might have then avoided the specter of a “ticking time bomb” for more than three-quarters of a million people who, whatever the merits of their having remained in the U.S. all this time, may now be forced to leave behind five years of a life they built due to reckless unilateral political grandstanding.

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