When Mitt Romney stuck his foot back in his mouth last week, saying that President Obama won re-election by giving a big gift to Latino voters, he got at least part of the story right. No doubt that the President's decision to offer DREAM Act eligible immigrant youth protection from deportation and temporary legal status helped energize immigrant voters.
But the President's decision was far from a grand plan to move Latinos to the polls in record numbers. From late December 2010 when the DREAM Act fell short by five votes in the Senate until June 2012, the Obama Administration repeatedly rejected pleas to provide blanket protection to DREAMers. The White House reluctantly changed course at the last minute under intense pressure.
The full story of how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (as the policy is officially named) came to be deserves to be told in detail, but the short story is that the immigrant youth movement, led by United We Dream, with support from immigrant and faith organizations, kept pressure on the White House. Past the time when many organizations stopped lobbying the President, DREAMers continued to engage in direct action at campaign offices.
And the young people worked the politics brilliantly. When Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he was considering offering his own version of the DREAM Act, United We Dream met with him and made it clear that they would work with elected officials from either party who were serious about protecting DREAMers from deportation. The last thing the Obama Administration wanted was to be out-flanked on an issue as important to the Latino community.
When the President announced the decision on June 15, 2012 he went about as far as a President ever does in acknowledging that the decision was thrust upon him, saying: "I know some have come forward, at great risks to themselves and their futures, in hopes it would spur the rest of us to live up to our own most cherished values. And I've seen the stories of Americans in schools and churches and communities across the country who stood up for them and rallied behind them, and pushed us to give them a better path and freedom from fear --because we are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids."
In hindsight what was so long resisted looks brilliant. The response to the new policy has been overwhelming. Young people have lined up in the thousands to participate in community education events at schools and churches. More than 300,000 immigrant youth have come out of the shadows and applied; and more than 50,000 have received deferrals. Leading up to the election, DREAMers hit the streets in record numbers talking to Latino voters about the importance of voting, not for a political party or a candidate, but for the sake of the community and its future.
And, as Governor Romney lamented Latino voters came out in record numbers -reaching ten percent of the electorate. Three out of four voted for President Obama. If Deferred Action was a gift, it was a gift from DREAMers to the President, not the reverse.
It's a gift that has the potential to keep giving to politicians from both parties, and to our entire country, as we head back into a big debate about citizenship for eleven million undocumented immigrants. The Deferred Action decision reminded us that embracing immigrants is as American as apple pie; doing right by new Americans is good for our economy, the moral thing to do; and politically it has a huge upside and little downside. We do not have to approach immigration from a defensive position.
Two out of every three undocumented immigrants in the United States has been in this country for more than a decade - working and contributing to our society. They are Americans in all but paper work and they include DREAMers and their families. We are well past the time for Congress to take up straightforward legislation to provide undocumented young people and their families with a pathway to citizenship.