The Presidential Memoranda signed today by President Barack Obama will dramatically change the lives of five million undocumented immigrants who have lived here in the United States for many years, worked hard, paid taxes, raised their families, and contributed to their communities and to our nation. President Obama will continue to be attacked by his political critics for acting “unilaterally” while Congress remains deadlocked and unable to enact any meaningful legislation on immigration policy reform (or almost any other subject). It is telling that the primary response of the critics is to threaten to “shut the federal government down” (again) by refusing to pass appropriations legislation for the current fiscal year (one of core functions of Congress in our system of a three-branched government). The critics don’t seem interested in advancing any policy alternatives, or in engaging in real debate, about the immigration policies at issue.

In fact, President Obama’s executive actions on immigration policy are consistent with some of the best examples of presidential leadership, especially when Congress is unwilling to act to lead the country forward. In our nation’s history, there have been milestone Executive Orders issued, both before I was born and during my lifetime, that are of particular importance to me and the work that I have been privileged to be a part of:

  • President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to end racial discrimination by federal defense contractors
  • President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to end racial discrimination in the armed forces
  • President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 to end racial discrimination by federal contractors (before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted by Congress)
  • President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13166 ensuring equal access for limited English proficient Americans to federally funded programs and services.
  • Earlier this year, President Obama issued Executive Orders 13658 and 13672 to raise the minimum wage paid, and to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, by federal contractors.

Of course, the other Executive Order that stands out for Asian Americans is Executive Order 9066 from President Roosevelt that authorized the relocation and internment of 120,000 primarily U.S. citizen Japanese Americans during World War II. Today, we look at that action, subsequently found to be based on contrived evidence of the alleged threat to our national security, as one of the most shameful moments in our history.

But I will always remember the tremendous pride that I felt over fifteen years ago when I was ushered into the Oval Office, along with a few dozen elected officials and leaders from the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, to witness President Clinton sign Executive Order 13125 – based on an idea that I had, and an initial draft of an Executive Order that I had written a year and a half earlier – establishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.   I was honored to be invited to the White House again in 2009 to witness President Obama sign Executive Order 13515 re-establishing that White House Initiative.

Today’s executive actions also brings back memories about work that I did nearly thirty years ago leading up to, and after the enactment of, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which authorized the legalization of 1.6 million undocumented immigrants. As past of that work, first as a law student and then as a lawyer, I often made presentations about what I call the mythology and rhetoric of a narrative of the United States as a “nation of immigrants”, which conveniently overlooks the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1882, the exclusion of other Asian immigrants (and their detention on Angel Island from 1910 through 1940), the refusal to admit Jewish refugees on the ship St. Louis during World War II, the exploitation of Mexican workers through the bracero program of the 1940s-1960s, and the denial of tens of thousands of refugee applications from Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing U.S.-supported violence in their countries in the 1980s. Our immigration laws and policies have always been restrictive, based on outright racial bias, business interests, and foreign policies rather than openness, fairness, humanitarianism, or equal opportunity.

The 1986 law was one of those policy changes that corrected some of that long history of exclusion and unfairness, creating a pathway to legalization for millions of immigrants. Legal services organizations, immigration attorney associations, faith-based institutions, and other community-based organizations all worked extremely hard over the next several years to conduct outreach and education about the new law, and to assist millions with their applications for legalization. Private foundations, state and local governments, and community institutions such as the United Way all partnered together to provide funding, support coordination among those community efforts, and to optimize the beneficial impacts of the new law.

In 1986, as a new attorney just a year and half out of law school, I worked with many others locally and nationally to establish new organizational relationships and coalitions to help implement the law. I organized comments on implementing regulations, trained volunteer attorneys to assist clients with their applications for legalization, and made dozens of presentations about the new law.

Beginning tomorrow, we will need similar local and national efforts to fund and support the implementation of President Obama’s executive actions. The good news is that many community organizations – and now national and local advocacy groups founded and led by undocumented immigrants themselves – have been organizing and preparing for this policy change for over the past decade. And in an age of the internet, smartphones, and social media, it is a lot easier and faster to spread the word.

While the political and media debate about the wisdom – and legality – of President Obama’s actions today will continue, his executive actions will be another milestone in the legacy of his presidency, and in the history of Executive Orders and other Presidential actions that moved our country forward.

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