DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
And I'm Don Gonyea. Immigration reform is again taking center stage in Washington. Since the Senate passed a major immigration reform bill last year, the over-taxed immigration system was further stretched by tens of thousands of young, Central Americans who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border.
GREENE: It's a vexing problem with a lot of different solutions being thrown out. Many Republicans insist that tougher enforcement has to come first. A few weeks ago, we had Republican Senator Marco Rubio on the program. He played a big role pushing that immigration reform bill through the Senate. It died in the House. And here's what Rubio said should happen next.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I think there's only one scenario in which it passes at any point in the next decade. And that is a three-step process that first involves border security. People have to believe that this problem is under control and not getting worse and in fact is getting better. If that can be achieved, I think we can move to step two, which is modernizing our legal immigration system. And then the third step in this process after you've done those two is addressing what to do with 11 or 12 million human beings that are in this country illegally.
GONYEA: That scenario seems unlikely to happen anytime soon - after all this is an election year. So now many reform advocates are pushing President Obama to bypass Congress and force through reforms using executive action.
GREENE: And we're going to hear two other voices now. Alan Gomez is an immigration reporter for USA Today. Grace Meng is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Thank you both for coming on the program. We appreciate it.
GRACE MENG: Thank you.
ALAN GOMEZ: Thank you.
GREENE: Alan, let me start with you if I can. When the president talks about taking executive action without having to go through Congress and dealing with the issue of immigration, what exactly is he talking about?
GOMEZ: Well, what he's talking about is expanding pretty much on what he's already done. So if you'll recall a couple of years ago he created a program called deferred action for childhood arrivals. And through that program, they basically allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to register with federal government and have any deportation proceedings against them deferred for a period of two years. And what they're talking about is expanding that now to their parents, to undocumented immigrants, who've been living in the country for a long period of time. So they're just talking about basically expanding that power, expanding that process.
GREENE: And is it clear that he has the legal ability to do that without congressional approval, or is that up for debate?
GOMEZ: Great question. I mean, it's a source of a lawsuit right now. And it was brought forth by a group of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents. And in it, basically they're arguing two things - A, that they're being asked to violate their own oath by not deporting people that they find to be in the country illegally, and B, that the president himself went too far because in the Constitution it says that the president has to faithfully execute the laws that are passed by Congress. And they're saying that by doing this, he's basically violating the will of Congress.
GREENE: Grace, you are an immigration lawyer. You're now senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, but can you take me out of Washington and sort of into the immigration court room where I would imagine we would get an idea for sort of the urgency of something being done when it comes to this issue?
MENG: Well, you know, I think that's a great question. I mean, what's really been fascinating for me having gone from being an immigration lawyer to a researcher at Human Rights Watch is to see that how much of the unfairness that I observed in the immigration court is only a small part of the problem.
I mean, there's so many people who don't ever even get a hearing at immigration court. There are permanent residents who can be put into deportation proceedings for minor criminal convictions. And they can be told, you know - for example, one man I met and interviewed, he had signed his cousin's name on a couple of traffic tickets. And he is considered an aggravated felon despite being a legal resident - that he has to be permanently exiled and separated from his family.
And I think these are the kind of problems that we would really like to see addressed by executive action - that to recognize that the existing system is not protecting families, is not protecting immigrant victims of crimes, immigrant workers and that what the president can do he should do.
GREENE: One of the big stories when it comes to immigration has been the surge of young migrants crossing the border from Central America on their own. Has that exposed sort of new problems? Has it changed the dynamic in any way as the president considers this issue?
MENG: I mean, I think it's been incredibly troubling to see how the administration has dealt with this crisis. Instead of ensuring that those who are eligible for protection are able to access those processes, we've seen an expansion of family detention, you know, something that the administration actually stopped several years ago because children were being placed in prison-like conditions. We're seeing rocket dockets, you know, where children are being pushed to the front of the line. And of course we want people to be able to have their day in court as quickly as possible, but not in a way that doesn't allow them to find attorneys, to ensure that they understand the processes.
GREENE: Alan, do you see some sort of compromise package that the president could propose when it comes to executive action that people in his party would be satisfied with and Republicans who have been talking about tougher enforcement would sort of accept as well?
GOMEZ: (Laughter) That, I think, would be absolutely impossible. Anything that he proposes that would allow one, two, three, four million undocumented immigrants to stay in this country without fear of deportation will absolutely inflame the right. You can pretty much count out any chance of comprehensive immigration reform bill passing for the remainder of his presidency. And I think that's the key to this thing. If he does go big as he's being pushed to do, if he does allow these folks to be here, it's going to be nearly impossible to work on so many of these other things that I think there's widespread agreement on.
You talked about the unaccompanied minors who were crossing over from Central America right now. Democrats and Republicans alike would like to see more judges; they'd like to see more prosecutors down there. Right now there are currently over 370,000 immigration cases in court waiting for their day. And those are the kind of things that they would love to address and be able to speed up this process, but it's hard to do that. And it's hard to get Congress to approve funds for that if the president is doing these kind of actions that allow some of these undocumented to stay here.
GREENE: That's Alan Gomez. He's an immigration reporter at USA Today. Alan, thanks very much.
GOMEZ: Thank you.
GREENE: And Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Thanks for coming on the program, Grace.
MENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.