Obama's Game Changer on Young Illegal Immigrants

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First, he came out for same sex marriage. Now a second bold move on behalf of a marginal group will dominate the conversation.

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Is this how Obama's 2012 campaign is going to go? Boring economic speeches that have trouble breaking through, mixed with daring pronouncements in support of long-standing drives toward a more equitable society for some of America's most marginalized residents?

First President Obama came out in support for same-sex marriage in a move bolder than even many gay and lesbian activists expected. Now he's using the authority of the bully pulpit and the power of the regulatory state on behalf of young Americans born abroad but raised here, the illegal immigrants/undocumented Americans (how awful that there is no longer even any neutral term for such residents of this country, so partisan has the issue of their rights and future become) who would have been covered by the DREAM Act, should the U.S. Congress ever have seen fit to pass it. The executive order taking advantage of prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases will cover individuals brought to the United States through no fault of their own before the age of 16 who have lived in the U.S. at least five years and have no criminal record. They must also have earned a high school degree or served in the military, and still be under 30. Those who meet the criteria can get deportation proceedings (or the threat of same) deferred for two years and seek work permits.

Coming in the wake of the publication of a cover story in Time magazine on the plight of "undocumented Americans" by Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post), the move seems certain to electrify the presidential race and solidify the support of Hispanic Americans.

Vargas says the administration's move in support of "deferred action" on deportation will allow all but three of the 36 "undocumented Americans" pictured on the Time cover to "now be legal residents," though it won't impact him, since he's over the age cut off outlined in the new "deferred action" executive order. His full statement:

Today our country embraces upwards of one million young new Americans: DREAMers. They grew up here, they were educated here and they have so much to give back to the country they call home. With a stroke of President Obama's pen, our country lives up to its ideals and finds a fair and pragmatic solution, ending the nightmare of a generation of young people who are Americans in all but documents. Every social movement in the world is led by young people, and DREAMers are the beating heart of this growing immigrant rights movement. Like generations of immigrants before them, they have insisted on a better life not just for themselves and their families but for the country they love. This is a victory for DREAMers and the members of their underground railroad -- educators and faith leaders, friends and neighbors -- who have aided and supported them. The journey is far from over for the remaining millions of undocumented Americans like me -- at 31, I am past the age limit -- but this is a big, bold and necessary step in the road to citizenship. Thank you, President Obama, for this principled and courageous act.

The executive order does not constitute amnesty and won't provide the young people with a path to citizenship, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters on a conference call Friday morning.

"These young people do not represent a risk to safety or security," she said.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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