President Barack Obama gave a speech at an immigration reform rally in San Francisco. During the speech, he was interrupted by a young man who called Obama’s attention to the immigrant families being separated by deportations.
The young man may have been an immigration rights or DREAM activist, but thus far most media are referring to him as the “heckler,” a label that should be considered downright insulting.
As Obama was speaking about “shared responsibility” in this country, the young man seated behind Obama shouted that he needed the president’s help. “Thousands of families of immigrants” are being separated “every single day.”
Obama turned around to say, “That’s exactly what we’re talking about. That’s why we’re here.”
“Please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country right now,” the young man replied.
“We agree that…” The young man was interrupted as various people started to shout, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” to stifle the person who interrupted Obama.
The young man continued, “You have a power to stop deportations for all.” To which Obama replied, “Actually, I don’t. And that’s why we’re here.”
“I need your help,” the young man cried again. A “Stop deportations!” chant broke out, and the Secret Service began to remove people who had disrupted the speech. However, Obama did not see any need to kick them out and continued.
“I respect the passion of these young people because the feel deeply about the concerns for their families,” Obama stated. “Now, what you need to know when I’m speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community is that if in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress then I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws. That’s part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws, and what I am proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve.”
It was an evasive answer but no different from the kind of answer the president has been giving to immigration rights groups for a number of years, even as his administration deports more immigrants annually than his predecessor’s administration, President George W. Bush.
Obama would not be breaking the law if he temporarily halted deportations while waiting for Congress to pass reform. In June 2012, his administration took executive action to stop deportations and grant work permits for some students who were “Dream Act-eligible.”
The Department of Homeland Security employed a policy known as “deferred action” to exercise prosecutorial discretion and prioritize certain illegal immigration cases over others. It made deportations of young people who were eligible and receive “deferred action status” for two years so they could get a driver’s license and go to work to pay for college.
A US Citizenship and Immigration Services memo on administrative measures the administration could take, which leaked in 2010, advised, “While it is theoretically possible to grant deferred action to an unrestricted number of unlawfully present individuals, doing so would likely be controversial, not to mention expensive.”
It suggested, “Rather than making deferred action widely available to hundreds of thousands and as a non-legislative version of ‘amnesty’, USCIS could tailor the use of this discretionary option for particular groups such as individual who would be eligible for relief under the DREAM Act (an estimated 50,000).”
According to DHS, more than 455,000 young undocumented immigrants have benefited from this action, well over the 50,000 estimated.
Which brings us to the reality of the situation: The honest answer is Obama does not want to halt all deportations and waste whatever political capital he has to pass immigration reform legislation in Congress. He is refusing to take executive action when he could temporarily issue one or more executive orders that targeted different sections of the immigrant population that would be able to avoid deportation if Congress passed reform.
Nevertheless, he chose to play constitutional law professor and in a patronizing manner lecture the young man in the audience.
It is not simply a matter of us just saying we’re going to violate the law. That’s not our tradition.
But the great thing about this country is we have this wonderful process of democracy, and sometimes it is messy, and sometimes it is hard, but ultimately justice and truth win out. That’s always been the case in this country. (Cheers, applause.) That’s going to continue to be the case today.
“Our tradition,” excluding the Executive Branch of government, has actually been to violate laws and engage in civil disobedience. It is how Americans created pressure that eventually pushed Congress to grant women and African-Americans equality under the law. Segregation and the subjugation of women would not have ended if citizens had not struggled against the government that was permitting such unjust policies to be enforced.
“Justice and truth win out,” when they do, because citizens protest their government and create a situation where the current social order is unsustainable and has to be readjusted to contain the groundswell of opposition.
When the Congress finally passes some kind of reform legislation, it will not be because of the good spirits of all 535 members of Congress but rather the result of struggling immigration rights activists, who made reform an issue and refused to relent until they achieved their goal.
Finally, it is shameful to see people treating what happened as a victory for Obama over some “heckler.” The crowd actually applauded for him after he managed to say what he wanted the president to hear.
It also is ridiculous to suggest that Obama was teaching this young man a thing or two about free speech. The young man was not violating his free speech rights at all.
Too many confuse the protesting of public figures in positions of power with heckling. This wasn’t comedian Dave Chappelle in Hartford, Connecticut, dealing with an audience that was growing increasingly hostile to his act. It was a rally with supporters of Obama, some frustrated and driven by something called the fierce urgency of now.
As the late historian Howard Zinn said in his essay, “The Problem is Civil Obedience”:
…The problems are so horrendous as to require us to go outside the legal framework in order to make a statement, to resist, to begin to establish the kind of institutions and relationships which a decent society should have…
A decent society should not be deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year, who deserve a pathway to citizenship. That is what drove the young man to speak out
The willingness to boldly confront the President of the United States, especially if he happens to be an undocumented immigrant himself, deserves to be celebrated because he is on the right side of history.