The Obama administration said today that it would stop deporting, and start granting work permits to, immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. It’s a huge policy change and huge political news. Let me explain what’s going on here.
Immigration policy as a whole is a huge mess. We have millions of people living here illegally, which is not only bad for them but bad for the rest of us, since they can’t pay taxes or otherwise productively enmesh themselves in American society. Nobody has been able to solve the problem. Finding and deporting them all is a practical impossibility. The only solution entails offering them legal status in some way, but conservatives refuse to accept such a move because they believe, sensibly enough, that rewarding illegal immigrants would only encourage more illegal immigration.
Obama came into office with a two-part plan to handle immigration. First, he increased enforcement of the laws, stepping up deportations, in hopes that this would convince hard-liners to make a deal on large-scale reform. Second, he tried to pass, as an immediate compromise measure, the DREAM Act. That would offer legal status to people who came to the United States as children, so long as they have avoided legal trouble and completed a certain level of education or served in the military.
But both the policy and the politics have been in a shambles. In 2010 Republicans, along with a handful of moderate Democrats, killed the DREAM Act. So immigration advocates have been furious with Obama because the DREAM Act didn’t pass. (Romney, characteristically, has attacked Obama for this, in keeping with his general approach for blaming the president for everything that happens, including things that Republicans have done.) Obama’s attempts to mollify immigration advocates have run into the difficulty that he has, in fact, ramped up deportations in an attempt to mollify immigration hard-liners. And the immigration hard-liners oppose him anyway because he’s Barack Obama, which means that his attempts to woo them with stronger enforcement have done zero good.
Basically, everybody hates him.
Starting last year, Obama decided that being hated by everybody is a bad plan, and he might as well at least get the people he actually agrees with to like him. So he started backing away from the hard-line enforcement of existing laws. Obama decided last summer to direct immigration authorities to use “discretion” in whom they deport — basically, urging officials to stop looking for illegal immigrants who were otherwise obeying the law and instead focus on real criminals. Today’s move goes much further. It’s a grant of official legal status to those who immigrated illegally. Rather than just nudge officials to look the other way at law-abiding immigrants who came as children, the administration is formally offering them legal sanction. Obama is unilaterally imposing the DREAM Act.
It’s a major policy reform in the face of political gridlock. It’s also a dramatic political gambit. Turnout among Latinos and other non-white voters is one of the major variables of the election. Polls show that Obama is doing at least as well among non-white voters as he did four years ago. If non-white voters turn out at the same rate that they did in 2008, Romney would need to win white voters by massive margins — specifically, he would need to win them at the same rate Ronald Reagan did in his 1984 landslide reelection. That’s not impossible, but it would be extremely hard to pull off.
For Obama to get that kind of turnout, he needs to fight against Romney’s argument that the failure of the DREAM Act is his fault. His unilateral action will help, primarily, by actually improving the conditions of people who had been living in fear of deportation. (Though keep in mind: None of them can vote, since they’re all by definition non-citizens.) It will also create a broad (and accurate) sense that Obama cares about and wants to help the immigrant community. And to whatever extent Romney and the Republicans attack him for it, it will further help draw clear lines between the parties, eroding Romney’s efforts to blame Obama for Republican opposition. Of course, it also comes with the risk of alienating voters who want to crack down on illegal immigration, though in all likelihood there aren’t all that many persuadable voters he could lose on the issue.
I’m sure that politics were a driving consideration for Obama’s decision. But it’s not the only consideration, and it’s not the only thing to care about. The most important thing is that some one million young people will now have a chance to live their lives in this country free of the terror that their parents’ actions (actions borne of nothing worse than a desire for freedom and opportunity) will not expose them to the horrors of deportation. They may not be American citizens, but most of us consider them our fellow Americans, and can regard the measure of relief they now have gained with relief of our own, and joy.
Update: Obama's announcement seems to have, for the moment, boxed Romney in. Romney is saying that he supports the general goals of Obama's move but not, of course, the move itself:
"I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country," Romney said.
He continued: "I think the actions that the president took today make it more difficult to reach that kind of long term solution because an executive order, of course, is a short-term matter that can be reversed by subsequent presidents."
Of course, as noted above, the entire reason for Obama's executive order is that Republicans in Congress have blocked both comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act. Would Romney reverse Obama's executive order if he wins? He refused to say.