June 16 (Bloomberg) -- On immigration enforcement, the Obama administration has officially taken its foot off the gas. It announced Friday in an executive action that young illegal immigrants who meet select criteria won’t be subject to deportation.
Those who are younger than 31, came to the U.S. before they were 16 and are students, high school graduates or honorably discharged veterans will be able to register to remain and work in the U.S. without becoming citizens. About 800,000 immigrants may be eligible, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The move is philosophically consistent with President Barack Obama’s support for the Dream Act, the legislation stymied by Congress that would provide a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants. Still, it represents a stark counterpoint to the policy of the past three years, during which the administration deported more than 1 million illegal immigrants, a record that surprised and angered some Hispanic supporters of the president.
Although Obama’s initiative removes the fear of immediate deportation for some, it doesn’t eliminate the uncertainty that dogs the lives of illegal immigrants. For example, if an otherwise eligible young person happens to have been out of the country anytime in the past 5 years (excluding military service), the offer of immunity is moot. Requests for work-authorization papers will be reviewed case by case, and have to be renewed every two years, with no guarantee that the rules won’t change.
The temporary nature of the benefits underscores the political nature of the plan. As an act of “prosecutorial discretion,” as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano emphasized repeatedly in announcing the action, it is subject to reversal by a subsequent administration. In other words, if Hispanic voters want to keep their young undocumented friends and neighbors out of deportation proceedings two years from now, they know whom to vote for in November.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney bungled the immigration issue badly in the Republican primary season, when he endorsed Arizona’s crackdown and generally mimicked his party’s most punitive voices. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, himself Cuban-American, raised hopes a few months ago when he signaled he would introduce legislation that sounded remarkably similar to the plan the administration has now offered. Nothing materialized from Rubio, who called the administration’s new effort “a short-term answer to a long-term problem.”
There is a limit to what the White House can achieve through executive action, and the new amnesty -- a word the administration avoids -- probably walks right up to that line. Passing the Dream Act, let alone comprehensive immigration reform, will require more courage from Republicans such as Rubio, and from some Democrats, too. With the border more secure due to increased enforcement, and illegal immigration slowing due to a poor economy, excuses for inaction are dwindling.
Illegal immigration is a product of ambition, opportunity and happenstance. Who makes it across the U.S. border, who finds work, who stays -- all are subject to the vagaries of grit and luck. We have supported the Dream Act in part from the belief that it will accentuate ambition and opportunity and minimize happenstance, enabling young illegal immigrants who go to school or serve in the armed forces to leave uncertainty behind and gain a sure pathway to employment, dignity and citizenship. The administration’s plan will help some of them, and that’s good. If it changes the political calculus for immigration opponents in Congress, that’s even better.
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