Obama moves on immigration, fulfils a DREAM

Obama greets supporters after speaking on immigration policy in El Paso last year.
Obama greets supporters after speaking on immigration policy in El Paso last year.
Associated Press

President Obama will announce today one of the biggest moves of his presidency on immigration policy, and in the process, will offer needed relief to hundreds of thousands of families.

The Obama administration will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives. The election-year initiative addresses a top priority of an influential Latino electorate that has been vocal in its opposition to administration deportation policies.

The policy change, described to The Associated Press by two senior administration officials, will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It also bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, a long-sought but never enacted plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who have attended college or served in the military.

For all the talk about Obama’s reluctance to take bold moves on key progressive policies, this is a major breakthrough. The president is going to face fierce condemnations from the right, but to his credit, it appears Obama is going to do it anyway.

Every year, tens of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants graduate from American high schools, but quickly find themselves stuck. They can’t qualify for college aid, and they can’t work legally. America is the only home they’ve ever known – in most cases, they were, at a very young age, brought into the country illegally by their parents – but at 18, they have few options. Many face deportation.

The solution was the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), which has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, and which provides a path to citizenship for these young immigrants – graduate from high school, get conditional permanent residency status, go to college or serve in the military, pay some steep fees, and become eligible for citizenship. The Pentagon loves the proposal, the CBO found it would lower the deficit, and advocates for the immigrant community saw it as an obvious, humane idea.

It didn’t matter. As Republicans moved sharply to the right, some of the same GOP lawmakers who helped write the DREAM Act – Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Dick Lugar, et al – decided to oppose the same legislation they used to champion. It died in 2010 after a Republican filibuster.

How does this relate to Obama’s new move? The president, no longer willing to wait for a dysfunctional and far-right Congress, will effectively implement the DREAM Act’s goals on his own – which is arguably the boldest thing he’s done since the 2010 midterms.

From the Associated Press report:

Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. The officials who described the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it in advance of the official announcement.

The policy will not lead toward citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods.

“Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways,” Napolitano wrote in a memorandum describing the administration’s action. “Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”

Anti-immigrant Republicans will no doubt be apoplectic, but they live in a perpetual state of outrage anyway, and Obama wasn’t getting anywhere waiting for them to strike a broader compromise.