Immigration Dreams Become Reality, Finally

President Barack Obama responds as he is interrupted while announcing that his 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, Friday, June 15, 2012, during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (National Journal)

They finally got a win. After two years of the kind of relentless agitating that can only come from teenagers, the Obama administration has stated definitively that it will not deport young undocumented foreigners who live in the United States exactly as citizens do.

The country's immigration laws are clear — you cannot be here without papers. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says the enforcement of those laws needs to be "sensible." The laws are not intended "to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."

It is precisely that enforcement discretion, and the administration's apparent unwillingness to push it to its limits, which has caused so much frustration among immigration advocates. Ever since President Obama took office, advocates have insisted that DHS has the flexibility to prioritize who it dings and who it doesn't, particularly in a budget-squeezing era when it isn't possible to round up and deport the 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States.

Under Obama, DHS has set its priorities to focus on crime, issuing guidelines to immigration agents that say they should go after criminals and not pregnant mothers, on people who facilitate the transport of illegal immigrants and not the elderly or children who accompany them. Napolitano has expressed genuine regret that undocumented youth that the agency happens upon must be placed into deportation proceedings, even if that means heart-wrenching family separations or missed graduations.

Until now, the administration has not gone as far as to say that it will openly turn a blind eye to any illegal immigrant who meets a certain set of criteria — being below the age of 30, having arrived before the age of 16 and lived here for at least five years, and in school or possessing a diploma or honorably military discharge. "This is big, bold, and needed," said Center for American Progress Vice President for Immigration Policy Angela Kelley. "It's a turning point in the debate."¦ It sends a clear message about where this president is on undocumented immigrants."

"This is huge," said America's Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration-reform advocate who has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration for its treatment of the undocumented population. "Hundreds of thousands of young people who are American in all but paperwork will have the opportunity to live freely." The administration said it could affect 800,000  people.

It is huge, but lurking behind the applause is the obvious question: What took them so long? It's been almost two years since Obama unsuccessfully begged Congress to pass the Dream Act to legalize these undocumented youth. Aside from a few tweaks to immigration-removal policies, the White House has been silent since that time except to blame Congress — particularly Republicans — for their unwillingness to bend.

Administration officials say that DHS's "dreamer" announcement is simply the next step "in a succession of memos" from the department that reflect an ongoing analysis of enforcement capabilities.

Yeah, right. It would certainly help Obama if he shored up some goodwill among the Hispanic voters, who arguably could hand him his reelection in November. Not to put too fine a point on it, the dreamers who are eligible to come forward under DHS's new deferral policy now have a hand-written incentive to ensure that Obama gets reelected. If Republican Mitt Romney wins, the two-year deferrals they receive under Obama will, in all likelihood, not be renewed. What's more, there could be a six-month lifespan on the deferral program if Romney is elected and immediately shuts it down. (People who get two-year deferrals in this administration will be safe for that period regardless of who wins the election.)

There's another political twist to the DHS announcement, a jab aimed directly at states that want to take immigration enforcement into their own hands. A Supreme Court decision on Arizona's tough immigration law could come any day now, and the justices' statements at oral argument suggest they are more than willing to uphold the local police's "show me your papers" part of the law. The United States has strenuously argued that the states have no business in immigration policy.

A senior administration official had this to say about the states' efforts. "The federal government alone makes the decision about who to remove from the United States and who not to remove from the United States. Ultimately, the federal government decides. Nothing in any state law is going to impact this announcement."

It's going to be a long, hot summer for Hispanics and immigration advocates. They will be required to encourage the undocumented youth to come forward and register for a program that doesn't even exist yet. It will require leaps of faith from a group of people that has repeatedly watched policymakers come up short on the things that they most care about. Deferrals aren't guaranteed. They will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Democrats, Hispanics, and immigration-reform advocates also will be called upon to defend the administration's actions against attacks from Republicans. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the decision "blatantly ignores the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy." Even before this transformative announcement, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a hawk's hawk on immigration, was angling to sue the White House for breaching the Constitution based on its deportation priorities.

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