What About Obama?

Obama’s immigration policy was harsh. He deported more people than did George W. Bush. I should have been more concerned about it, but there are fundamental differences between his policies and those of his successor.

The first is that he attempted to restrain the conduct of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I.C.E. lamented the restraints placed upon them by a president under whom they were able to deport 2.5 million people.

He also attempted many times to define the legal status of large swaths of the undocumented population. By backing immigration reform in Congress and issuing executive orders where that failed, Obama attempted to solve problems that left millions of people in legal shadow.

Deportation is a terrible fate for people who fled war, poverty, and oppression but it’s also a legal status that comes with its own set of rules. I’d prefer that undocumented immigrants live inside the law and enjoy legal status with all its rights and responsibilities. But official processes like deportation at least imply expediency, legality, and structure on the part of the government. Whether it translates to reality is a different story.

Trump has given I.C.E. every latitude, not just in its professional judgement, but in its conduct. He has kept the legal status of asylum-seekers, refugees, and resident childhood arrivals in constant limbo. Not even a bipartisan agreement to give him exactly the money he demanded for his border wall could move him to define their status legally. The responsibility of the government to deal legally with those outside the law is questionable to some. That combination along with an inclination toward cruelty and dishonesty make the Trump Administration wholly different.

This country has a history of stripping legal status from those we’d rather not deal with humanely. George W. Bush designated enemy combatants and held them in legal purgatory so that he could subject them to interrogations that blurred or crossed the line separating acceptable tactics from torture. Barack Obama vowed to end that practice and, though he did so, failed to define those detainees’ legal status and expanded his prosecution of Bush’s War on Terror to include the summary execution of terrorists on foreign soil.

I’ve always had some sympathy for Libertarian politics. I am a true progressive liberal, but this is one area where classical liberals have been right for decades. George W. Bush’s presidency was a disaster, but I have little reason to doubt his good faith. He faced extraordinary challenges with extraordinary measures and made the worst choices where only bad were available. Barack Obama did a great deal to roll back the damage of the Bush presidency but did so without shutting the doors Bush opened. He wanted to leave himself the option of walking through them and, in so doing, strolled into territory that even Bush managed to avoid.

The argument of (most) Libertarians was never that Bush or Obama were terrible people or that they didn’t have good reasons for doing what they did. The argument was that some presidents are terrible people (the earlier Johnson and Nixon come to mind) or incompetent (Harding, perhaps) or unrestrained (Roosevelt and Jackson, for example). The argument was that one such man coming into possession of such extraordinary power was a danger that outweighed almost all others. They were right.

We fell asleep on the job, but that doesn’t mean Donald Trump is just another president. Trying but failing to deal with ten million stateless people is different than intentionally keeping them stateless. Taking executive liberties to give legal status to a class of people brought to the country through no fault of their own is not equivalent to revoking their protections and intentionally leaving them in uncertainty. Wrestling unsuccessfully with I.C.E. and gleefully encouraging their excesses are different things entirely. Letting asylum-seekers be welcomed or rejected according to procedure is not the same thing as turning them away at the border in defiance of international law or separating families to deter more from trying.

That we ceded rights to two presidents from two parties is the worst possible reason to abdicate further. That we allowed two presidents from two parties to open a dangerous door is a terrible reason to ignore that the sort of man we were supposed to be watching for just walked through it.