06/18/2012 08:35 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Obama's Small but Powerful Push for Immigration Reform

President Obama's decision to stop deporting some young illegal immigrants is a small but significant act of pragmatic common sense in a policy arena that has long abandoned rationality for symbolism and emotion. According to New York Times reporters Julia Preston and John H. Cushman Jr.:

Under the change, the Department of Homeland Security will no longer initiate the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the United States before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, and are in school, are high school graduates or are military veterans in good standing. The immigrants must also be under 30 and have clean criminal records.

While no one knows how many people are affected by the President's Executive Order, estimates range from 800,000 to 1.4 million. We also do not know the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States, but most estimates exceed 10 million. The Obama Administration has already deported over a million illegal immigrants, but no one thinks these deportations are effective public policies. If someone figured out a way to sneak across the border once, why does anyone seriously think they can't figure it out a second time? It is impossible to completely seal a national border.

Which leads to our need for a reality check. Why do people come to America? My guess is they come for the same reason they always have come: for a better life than the one they have where they live. About fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy wrote a short book entitled A Nation of Immigrants. President Kennedy discussed the importance of immigration in shaping America's character. The fact is, with the exception of a small number of Native Americans, most of us do not have to go very far back to trace our family to some other part of this planet. America remains a nation of immigrants. My grandparents came here less than a century ago from Eastern Europe and Russia. I'm told they came in legally, but the laws and methods of travel and enforcement were different back then. My grandparents came here for the same reason today's immigrants come -- to build a better life.

That drive is strong and is difficult to stop. If economic opportunity and political stability were equal around the world, most people would not travel thousands of miles to settle in another country. The immigrant life is hard and it takes great courage to leave a familiar place to move to someplace new. As Kennedy pointed out in his book, immigrants have always faced bias and mistreatment at the hands of those who arrived before they did. My grandparents faced bias and anti-Semitism in America, but it was far less dangerous than the version they dealt with in Poland and Russia. They found it possible to work, buy homes and raise families in relative security and safety in America. My parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings all know (and those deceased knew) that their lives and their lifestyles were made possible by our grandparents' courage and drive. And I know too. America's safety and opportunity attracts people today, as does our tradition of welcoming immigrants (or at least our habit of being more open to the idea than other countries). What has changed since my grandparents arrived are the laws governing who is allowed to come. Clearly, those laws are not working. Why?

One reason is that employers like to hire immigrant labor. Immigrants will do work that the rest of us are unwilling to do at the price that employers are willing to pay. Immigrants know that even if they come to America illegally they will be able to find work. One might expect that 8 percent unemployment would deter immigrants and reduce their presence in the job market, but there is little evidence this has happened. Perhaps fewer are coming to America, but few are leaving. So the push to immigrate remains, as does the pull of low-paying but steady work. People from places with death squads, drug wars and political disorder seek the safety and order of a nation of laws.

Despite these facts we see sanctimonious politicos bellowing about the need to maintain the sanctity of the law. While I mistrust the nativist motives behind some of those making this argument, I have sympathy for it as well. The laws must be enforced. Our safety and security depend on it. But stupid and impractical laws must be changed. How are we going to deport 10 million people? And why would we want to deport these productive, hard-working immigrants? Why should these people suffer from the fact that our immigration laws did not match the economic reality that provided them with employment?

As we learned last week, there is still a strong political force arguing that immigration laws must be enforced. These folks oppose "amnesty" and want to deport illegal immigrants. Until last week, a teenager, brought here when she was four and trying to go to college was told she was not an American and was deported. With the stroke of a pen, the president has changed that: at least for a little while. This is an important step forward in dealing with a deeply flawed law that is stuck in Washington gridlock. The president came to understand that children who grew up in this country were the innocent victims of our dysfunctional federal government. The response was a careful, short term and limited fix that provided immediate relief and refocused attention on this critical issue.

The president is being criticized for taking such an obvious and brazenly political action the midst of an election year. Swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia have growing Hispanic populations and moves such as this can swing a swing state toward the president's column. What a shock to find one of the nation's most skilled and successful politicians making an overtly political move during an election year. With gay marriage and immigration reform Obama is simultaneously appealing to key constituencies and managing to take our collective mind off the economy. That's one way to fight millions of dollars of Super PAC money. I wonder what's next?

The political nature of this move is evidence of the growing importance of the Hispanic vote and the continued centrality of immigration and diversity to our national identity. In most countries of the world, a foreigner's family remains foreign for many generations, if not forever. America is different. As President Kennedy understood a half century ago, our openness to people from other nations is a source of our strength. The economics of the 21st century will be dominated by brain-based economies that can develop and utilize new technologies. America's openness to talent from all corners of the globe, its continued investment in science and engineering, its relative safety and its free market provide the potential for continued economic strength. We need to make sure that talented scientists continue to move here and that those living in America stay here. But idiotic immigration laws, cuts in federal funding for science and engineering, and ideological gridlock in Washington threaten these national assets.

With a brilliantly crafted and highly political exercise of executive power, President Obama has changed the terms of the immigration debate. By focusing on innocent children, brought here before they were legally responsible for their own actions, he removes some of the stigma of illegality from their presence in America. But more importantly, he resets the immigration debate in human terms. The media is filled with stories of sympathetic young people who will benefit from this new policy. President Obama helped provide a human face to the issue of immigration reform. While it is true he could have done the same things three years ago, the relatively muted Republican response to his move benefited from the electoral math of 2012. It is that same math that could finally bring much-needed reforms to our immigration laws. Let's hope so.