OPINION

Rep. Hoyer: President Obama's executive action is a step toward immigration reform

EAST HAVEN, CT - FEBRUARY 01: Two Latino residents walk down the street on February 1, 2012 in East Haven, Connecticut. Following an investigation by the FBI, four East Haven police officers were arrested last week and accused of abusing Latinos in the working class community of 28,000 people which was nearly predominately white a generation ago. A recent civil rights investigation which was released last month revealed a pattern of discriminatory policing in East Haven and the town has been warned by the U.S. Justice Department to make reforms. The arrested officers have been accused of subjecting Hispanics to beatings and false arrests among other things. Currently East Haven's Latino population is around 10 percent.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

EAST HAVEN, CT - FEBRUARY 01: Two Latino residents walk down the street on February 1, 2012 in East Haven, Connecticut. Following an investigation by the FBI, four East Haven police officers were arrested last week and accused of abusing Latinos in the working class community of 28,000 people which was nearly predominately white a generation ago. A recent civil rights investigation which was released last month revealed a pattern of discriminatory policing in East Haven and the town has been warned by the U.S. Justice Department to make reforms. The arrested officers have been accused of subjecting Hispanics to beatings and false arrests among other things. Currently East Haven's Latino population is around 10 percent. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

Across the country, families will come together this week to celebrate the most American of holidays – Thanksgiving. They will give thanks in nearly every language spoken on Earth for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy as Americans and soon-to-be-Americans. That patchwork of languages is a reflection of the immigrant history of our nation — nearly every family has an immigration story to tell. 

My own father was born and raised in Denmark, and he came here during the Great Depression hoping to find a better life in America. He later earned his citizenship by serving in the military during World War II. Many of my colleagues in Congress are also the children or grandchildren of immigrants — or even immigrants themselves. This shared immigrant experience has helped build America into the democracy it is today, a nation that draws strength from its diversity.

These are men and women who have lived here for many years and already play a role in our economy. Giving them a chance to get right with the law and work legally doesn’t just help these immigrants — it benefits us all. 

- Rep. Steny H. Hoyer

Over the last few decades, though, our immigration system has broken down. Those who wish to come here – including many talented workers, innovators and job creators – face months and years of red tape, long lines, and little hope that their applications won’t be lost in a seemingly endless backlog. Others have crossed our borders or overstayed their visas as they seek the opportunity to realize the American Dream.

As a result, millions of undocumented immigrants now live in our country and have spent years working in the shadows of our economy. Many have children who are citizens or legal residents. Some have siblings or spouses now serving in our Armed Forces. They desperately want to stay here and contribute to the country they love, but the threat of deportation looms large and has already separated children from their parents in a cruel violation of our most fundamental values. 

The executive actions announced by the president last week were a bold and important step toward fixing this system. They will make our borders more secure, keep families together and increase accountability within the immigration process. As a result, as many as five million undocumented immigrants will be able to have deportation deferred for three years at a time. To be eligible, they must have been here for at least five years, have children who are citizens or legal residents, register and pass a background check, and pay taxes. 

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These are men and women who have lived here for many years and already play a role in our economy. Giving them a chance to get right with the law and work legally doesn’t just help these immigrants — it benefits us all. 

The president announced these executive actions only after it was clear that House Republicans were not going to play a constructive role this year. They have had over 500 days to act on a bill passed by the Senate last June, by a vote of 68-32. The Republican-led House of Representatives ought to have followed suit right away, given the scope of bipartisan support in our chamber. Yet Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McCarthy have not allowed the House to vote, leaving President Obama no choice but to take what actions he could within his legal authority. 

In response to the president's announcement, Republicans have said that these executive actions would “poison the well” for comprehensive reform. Some among them have even threatened to shut down the government in response. However, I believe that the president’s actions will make comprehensive immigration reform more likely to happen, not less. 

The president has now given Republicans a clear choice: allow our broken immigration system to be addressed, in the limited ways it can, by the executive branch — or step up to the plate and pass comprehensive reform that will have a broader impact. There is only one way for Republicans to address the President's actions: work with Democrats to pass a wider-ranging immigration reform package through Congress that supersedes them. 

Ultimately, the only way to address all the shortcomings of our immigration system is through legislation. That’s why I will continue to work with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific Americans Caucus, and Members on both sides of the aisle advocating for the House to act on a comprehensive reform bill like the one the Senate passed. 

Until Congress does its job, this problem will continue to undermine our future and deny our economy its full growth potential. 

Even conservative Republican Senator Lindsay Graham chided his House colleagues last Sunday for their inaction: “Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that’s national security, that’s cultural, that’s economic.”

This is not only a political and economic issue. It’s a moral issue that goes straight to what it means to be American. We cannot afford to be a nation that separates parents from their children or sends some of our brightest and most talented graduates to create jobs overseas. We must not allow ourselves to be a nation where petty politics stands in the way of making real headway against a challenge that so deeply affects our future. It’s time to bring comprehensive immigration reform to the House Floor and finish the job President Obama started on Thursday night.  

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is House Democratic Whip. 

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