When the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reneged on its promise to take up immigration reform before heading off on vacation, President Barack Obama vowed to take matters into his own hands by the end of summer.

Obama hasn't spelled out his plans, but the smoke signals from the White House suggest he's mulling a broader version of the 2012 executive decree that lifted the threat of deportation for thousands of immigrant children brought here illegally by their parents. By some accounts, the president could extend a similar break to some 5 million undocumented immigrants.

Can he do that? "The notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true," Obama said in 2011, responding to immigrant advocates pushing for executive action. Now, though, he seems determined to test those limits.

More than a month ago, the New York Times urged Obama to "go big on immigration;" last week, the Washington Post argued that an intransigent Congress "doesn't grant the president license to tear up the Constitution."

The real question isn't whether he can, but whether he should. He should not.

Obama's 2012 action — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — applies to undocumented youngsters who were raised in the United States, a group most Americans agree should be held blameless. Now, the president is being urged to spare their parents, the undocumented parents of immigrant children who are American citizens because they were born here, and others.

This could be accomplished through "prosecutorial discretion." The president has the authority to tell immigration officials how to spend their limited resources, and the argument is they'd be better spent deporting felons instead of law-abiding laborers. But it feels like a political stunt, and one that could backfire badly.

DACA was a big win for Democrats. Obama collected 70 percent of the Latino vote on his way to re-election, and Republican leaders quickly declared immigration reform a priority. But hard-liners within the party — the "15 knuckleheads," as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago, calls them — resisted, and the GOP got cold feet after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary challenge to a tea party candidate.

Our immigration system has been broken for a long time. But the president cannot fix it. He could, in fact, make things worse.

An expansive dose of prosecutorial discretion would not repair the hopelessly inadequate visa system that deprives American businesses of legal immigrant labor. It would provide relief from the threat of deportation for some undocumented immigrants, but it wouldn't grant them permanent legal status, and it wouldn't deal with the rest of the 11.5 million at all.

What it would do is antagonize the president's foes in Congress. It would deal with only the most divisive part of the immigration puzzle - what to do about those who entered the country illegally - without repairing the system that encouraged them to do so. That's not immigration reform. It's what the knuckleheads call amnesty.

This country needs comprehensive immigration reform. It requires an act of Congress.

 

—Chicago Tribune, Aug. 15