It's not comprehensive immigration reform, but it is real progress:
With their expectations soaring, young illegal immigrants across the country are preparing to apply for a temporary reprieve from deportation that the Obama administration is offering. For the first time, as many as 1.7 million of them could be allowed to work legally and live openly in this country without fear of being expelled.
There is plenty of room for debate about President Obama's immigration policies. To review, he appears to have made a calculation that if he got "tough" on enforcement that Republicans would then work with him to pass some kind of comprehensive immigration reform, or at least the DREAM Act. Obama did step up enforcement, leading to record numbers of deportations, but Republicans (and a handful of Democratic Senators) blocked the DREAM Act anyway.
After it became clear that passing any significant immigration legislation would be impossible, the administration unilaterally made three policy changes. First, in mid-2011, the White House announced that efforts to deport those here illegally would thereafter focus on those who had committed a crime while in the U.S., and felons in particular. Another change made early in 2012 permitted family members of immigrants to apply for hardship waivers earlier than previously, thus helping to keep families from being separated while they waited to hear from the government.
Then, in June, the President announced an executive action that, much like the DREAM Act would have done on a permanent basis, would suspend deportations for two years for young people who were brought here illegally as children and who were making good progress in school or received an honorable discharge from the military. These young people would also be able apply for work permits without having to worry that they would be deported. This is the policy that will be formally put into effect on Wednesday.
It is important to note that Mitt Romney condemned this new Obama executive branch policy. On a related note, Romney stated that he would veto the DREAM Act if it reached his desk as President, although he added that he'd support a limited DREAM Act only for those undocumented immigrants who served honorably in the U.S. military. While he ruled out rounding up the estimated 11 million here illegally, he offered another solution:
"The answer is self-deportation," Romney said. "People decide that they do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here."
Additionally, Obama opposed the Arizona immigration law and cheered the Supreme Court decision that nullified much of it. Romney, on the other hand, in February called the Arizona law "a model," and refused to say whether he agreed with the Supreme Court's ruling after it was issued.
To return to the new policy taking effect tomorrow, we can see how important it is by the reaction of people who will be able to take advantage of it less than 24 hours from now. Here's one example:
"It's like giving us wings to the people that want to fly," said Noe Torres, now 26, who said he had been living illegally in California since his parents brought him here from Mexico when he was 4.
In addition to the policies his administration has implemented, Barack Obama has also spoken throughout his career about immigrants in a humane, inclusive way.
In The Audacity of Hope (pp. 317-18), Obama wrote:
America has nothing to fear from these newcomers...they have come here for the same reason that families came here 150 years ago....Ultimately the danger to our way of life is not that we will be overrun by those who do not look like us or do not yet speak our language. The danger will come if we fail to recognize [their] humanity...if we withhold from them the rights and opportunities that we take for granted.
On April 29, 2011, as part of a speech he made in support of the DREAM Act, President Obama offered the following about the DREAMers:
They grew up as Americans. They pledge allegiance to our flag. And if they are trying to serve in our military or earn a degree, they are contributing to our future -- and we welcome those contributions.
We didn't raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world; we raised it with its light to the world. Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship; whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande -- we are one people. We need one another. Our patriotism is not rooted in ethnicity, but in a shared belief of the enduring and permanent promise of this country.
Obama's inclusive definition of our national identity is one that says that those who "crossed the Rio Grande" are just as American as those who "came here on the Mayflower." That's a simple statement, but it speaks volumes. It exemplifies a inclusive, unifying national identity that includes immigrants and everyone else as full and equal members of the American community. That's Obama's America.
Follow Ian Reifowitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ianreifowitz