Sometimes, what may be good politics is almost certainly good policy. President Barack Obama has pulled off that apparent double play by announcing that Homeland Security will stop deporting young illegal immigrants, provided they meet certain conditions.
Obama sidestepped Congress which for years has gone nowhere, slowly, on immigration reform to put in place administratively some of the yet-to-be-passed Dream Act. That legislation would apply to young people brought to this country by their illegal-immigrant parents. Obamas directive, cast as a reordering of the governments deportation priorities, omits a crucial part of the Dream Act, a path to citizenship or permanent residency. Only Congress can map that out.
Still, the change begins a sensible new arrangement for up to 800,000 young people who should not be stigmatized, and whose contributions to the economy and to the country can now come out of the shadows.
To be eligible for whats known as deferred action on deportation, applicants must have been brought to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 (and today be under age 30), have lived here for at least five years, with no felony convictions or a significant misdemeanor, and must have either a high school (or equivalency) degree or have served in the armed forces. Those who come forward and fit those criteria will be eligible for two-year, renewable work permits.
In other words, these young men and women will be eligible to stay and work in the U.S. legally. The change may indeed gain Obama some votes in November, but the larger point is that the action is both fair to those involved and good for this country.
The work permits are doubly important because of their relevance to a key argument one heard often in North Carolina for not allowing illegal-immigrant high school graduates to attend community colleges. Because these students could not legally find work here after graduating, so the argument goes, it makes no sense to allow them access even at out-of-state tuition rates to post-secondary education. That debate, concerning this group of young people, should now be over.
For years, its been obvious that the eventual resolution of Americas illegal immigration dilemma would involve tightening border security nations must control their borders plus some form of work permits similar to those used in agriculture and, for long-term immigrants, a route to legal residency and/or citizenship, grueling as it might be.
The Great Recession, which has reduced demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor (particularly in construction), and stronger border security measures have combined to create a new context. Illegal crossings of the southern border are down sharply under the Obama administration, which has responded to pressure from Republicans in Congress. Harsh policies against the undocumented in Arizona and Alabama have also sent a message to Mexico and points south.
So by fits and starts (the real American way) the often-mentioned two-part formula for immigration reform is finally coming to pass: First, get control of the borders. Then, put in place new, more sensible policies. Obamas announcement, which begins to carry out the second part of that strategy, generated far less controversy than it would have two or three years ago.
Come January, a President Mitt Romney could, of course, toss out the new deportation policy faster than he could say Obamacare. But in comments the Republican nominee was vague about his intentions and said only that he favors long-term, not short-term, immigration solutions.
Given the ferocity that many in his party still bring to the issue witness the audience reaction during GOP primary debates Romney, if elected, might find that patchwork measures like Obamas are the only way forward. The new policy, a welcome step toward wider immigration reform, may be around for awhile, whoever wins in November.