Last week's surprising — and politically brilliant — move by President Obama in his plan to end deportation for at least 800,000 immigrants is in part a hopeful sign that this nation's top politician is beginning to do something substantive about a long-standing problem. But viewed another way, the announcement is troubling.
Either way, it focuses attention on the fact that this nation's immigration policy needs more than a little fine tuning. It needs a real solution.
The policy calls for officials to exercise discretion. Those eligible must be 30 or younger, must have arrived in the United States prior to the age of 16 and must be in school or high school graduates or military veterans. They must have no criminal records. The work that would be involved in the necessary case-by-case examinations will be mountainous. In today's atmosphere of doing more with less, the impact of this policy just on personnel could potentially prove crushing.
Critics say the policy violates the Constitution, and it is at least dicey. But prosecutorial discretion is a fact of life. Some states still have laws against adultery, for example, but they are rarely prosecuted. If Obama's plan is over the line, it is not the gross violation that his opponents claim it is. Their reaction is as politically motivated as Obama's.
The move stands to deny Republicans their own planned immigration policy victory, so to speak. Again, this is a politically brilliant move by Obama who stands an excellent chance of winning over more Latino voters if he is able to prevent tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from being deported. Certainly, it would be an ironic twist given that the Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants. The change will also be hard to reverse. If Mitt Romney wins the election, he will do his party no favors with the nation's largest minority group by returning to the hard line that Republicans unaccountably favor.
The administration may have finally found an effective way to maintain the president's early pledge to support DREAM Act legislation, a proposal before Congress designed to provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrant students. It also offers hope of providing an effective way to thwart the in-the-works plan by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida– he was close to introducing his own bill – to offer illegal immigrant students temporary status.
Even if this policy stands up, it will represent a huge shift of perception and, likely practice, in the balance of power in Washington. Such a rebalancing, or exercise of those presidential rights hidden in the fine print of the law, could represent hope when an intractable Congress refuses to budge on a fundamental issue. Or, it could mean sweeping changes that no right-thinking person would want and no real way to stop it.
The discussion itself has put pressure on both Obama and Romney to address illegal immigrants in a more thoughtful manner. Romney is already on record with his tough border enforcement and "self-deportation" stance and Obama's record number of deportations speaks for itself.
Politically, Obama had to do something. But he and his advisers must make iron-clad sure it is the right thing for the nation and not just a brilliant move.