The Obama administration took a perfectly reasonable, perfectly legal step toward immigration reform Friday. But it’s far from a perfect solution.
The administration announced – and President Obama later celebrated in an afternoon speech – that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will be safe from deportation by applying for “deferred action” status and receiving work permits, thanks to a new federal policy.
“These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama said. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
The policy is similar to the Dream Act, a measure that would have offered a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants after they had graduated from high school and completed some military service or college. The last incarnation of the Dream Act stalled in the Senate in 2011.
Friday’s announcement brings welcome relief to a similar group – people under 30 who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 and have lived here for five years. To be eligible, they also must have earned a high school diploma, remained in school or served in the military, and have no criminal record. Officials estimate 800,000 will fit that description.
The new policy opens doors to these children of immigrants who were punished because of decisions their parents made. The opportunity they’ll be given benefits all of us by allowing for the continued education and work development of talented people who better our country, including with military service.
Those doors, however, could close just as easily. A Mitt Romney administration can reverse today’s policy simply by making deportation of young people a priority again. Any administration, including Obama’s, has the executive branch discretion to decide what types of cases it will prioritize for prosecution – although few presidents declare so loudly whom they won’t pursue.
Was Friday’s announcement at least somewhat political? Of course. Latinos are among the special interest groups who’ve expressed frustration with the president for being slow to address their concerns. Friday brought affirmation that he’s in their corner, and it brings the added bonus of perhaps forcing Romney to embrace or reject the immigration extremists in his party.
It’s also a logical step for Obama, who announced a policy last August that backed off deporting illegal immigrants who have no criminal records, were students or were brought here as children. The administration said then its focus would be criminals and serious violators of immigration law.
Both steps, while promising, don’t go nearly far enough. Although polls show Americans supporting a rigorous path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, neither Obama nor Congress has mustered the political courage to propose such legislation. The last president to do was George W. Bush, who advocated a combination of tightening borders and penalizing illegal immigrants with back taxes and fines in exchange for a path to U.S. citizenship. That proposal was trounced in the Senate.
On Friday, the president took a small but smart step that brings relief to almost 1 million young immigrants, but it leaves at least 10 million more – along with most Americans – still wishing for something more.
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