Even if, as many Republicans are suggesting, President Obama’s decision to end the deportation of most undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 is politically motivated, it is good policy.
The directive announced on Friday closely mirrors provisions of the long-sought DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to young people who grew up here and either served in the military or attended college for two years. The administration made the sensible decision that, with scarce resources to crack down on undocumented workers, there is no point in wasting them on young people who entered the country through no decision of their own.
The change is not pure amnesty. Those who qualify — undocumented immigrants under 30 who meet residency and education requirements — will be given a deferred-action designation, meaning that their work permits as well as their status in the country are still at risk should they, for example, commit crimes or pose a national security threat. It is less than what many immigration groups wanted; it does not provide for automatic citizenship.
The administration has gone this route before, promising that it would focus its detention and removal efforts on only the most dangerous people. But, in practice, many people who don’t meet anyone’s definition of violent criminal were still put up for deportation, and officials seemed unsure whether they had the authority to exempt them. From Friday’s announcement, it appears that the administration finally recognized that it stands on solid legal footing as well as sound policy ground.
Obama’s move may have been engineered to garner more Democratic support from the Hispanic community, and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, withheld immediate comment. But the Romney campaign sent proxies to argue that the White House had unfairly bypassed the legislative process, which has kept the DREAM Act bottled up for years. Marco Rubio, a Florida senator and potential Republican vice-presidential candidate who has proposed legislation that is almost exactly similar to the Obama policy change, argued that it will hurt immigrants because it offers a short-term solution to a problem requiring a more fundamental fix.
Rubio is right that the country needs immigration reform legislation to ensure that federal policies properly balance security, fairness, and the economic needs of the 21st century. The order that was announced Friday will apply to only about 800,000 of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. But just because it is not the statutory fix that’s needed doesn’t mean Obama’s directive is mistaken. Young people who’ve grown up as Americans, in some cases from infancy, and earned degrees, fought for the country in war, or shown exceptional character in their communities should not be deported.
Everyone has heard the sad stories about the hard-working valedictorians who, upon turning 18, discovered, in some cases without ever suspecting, that they were in the country illegally. Obama deserves credit for correcting a major flaw in the country’s immigration policies — whatever his ulterior motives.