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Romney’s Immigration Policy Can Start Now

The door is open for Mitt Romney to do a bundle of good for his campaign, his party and his nation.

This week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that about 72,000 people have registered for its deferred action program, which enables illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and meet certain criteria to remain here legally. This number is disappointingly small, considering that perhaps 1 million or more people are eligible for the program. It’s also understandable.

The administration’s policy, announced June 15 by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, amounts to a promise not to deport qualified registrants. Applicants must be younger than 31, have arrived in the U.S. before age 16, and meet educational and residency requirements. If their application is successful, they can obtain work- authorization papers, although the papers must be renewed every two years.

That requirement is only an inconvenience, however. A far more pressing concern is politics. If a new administration enters office in January, it could rescind the deferral policy, scuttling the hopes of a generation and exposing those young immigrants who have already registered to harsh legal consequences, including deportation. Fear of just such an outcome is almost certainly depressing the number of applicants.

Enter the Republican candidate for president. In order to win his party’s nomination, Romney made an unfortunate lurch to the right on immigration, promising to veto the Dream Act (of which the Obama administration’s executive action is a rough approximation) and attacking Texas Governor Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to attend Texas colleges at in-state tuition rates.

Romney’s courtship of nativists has helped produce a huge deficit for his campaign among Hispanic voters, who in multiple polls prefer President Barack Obama by more than 2-to-1. A paucity of Hispanic support could sink Romney’s presidential run. He could help hundreds of thousands of aspiring Americans and, at the same time, shore up his campaign with a vow to continue the deferred action program as president. By removing uncertainty and risk, he could clear a path for young immigrants with deep roots in the U.S. to build productive lives and livelihoods.

He could also help the U.S. economy. According to the Kauffman Foundation, in 2010, immigrants were more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business. Standard & Poor’s research found that cities with high immigration levels experience improvements in their credit ratings, tax bases and per-capita incomes.

Thwarting the deferred action program would be economically counterproductive -- the U.S has already invested in these immigrants’ education and potential. The nation gains nothing by crushing their aspirations and opportunities. Romney now has a chance to rise above the pronouncements that marred the Republican primary. Obama made the right call in easing deportations until a Dream Act passes Congress. Romney should second it.

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