When the Obama administration last week announced its intention to review the cases of 300,000 immigrants ensnared in the nation's deportation process, as well as to institute new guidelines going forward — with the goal of distinguishing between those who pose threats to public safety from those who are merely in the country illegally — reaction reverberated along well-worn lines. Enforcement hawks denounced the move as amnesty; immigration doves responded warily, worried that it would substitute for more comprehensive efforts to fix the nation's broken immigration system.
Both sides have reason for concern. Nevertheless, failing to please the extremes in this debate is hardly proof of failure. In fact, this is a sensible plan that offers at least temporary relief for deserving students, veterans, the elderly, crime victims and those with family — including same-sex partners — in the United States. It should not substitute for broader reform, but it will relieve some needless suffering until such a measure passes, as it must.
Among those who will receive the benefits of the administration's action are so-called DREAM Act students, young men and women in the country because their parents brought them here as children and who now are enrolled in American colleges and universities. To deport these students after investing in their education is neither smart nor compassionate; Obama's policy will effectively allow them to stay, at least for a time, by acknowledging the obvious fact that they are more desirable than immigrants who have committed crimes while in the United States. Illegal immigrants who have served in the U.S. military would receive the same protection.
There are other benefits as well. Backlogged immigration courts can clear some of their dockets and give more attention to serious criminals, those whom this country is most eager to be rid of. And they can tend to the details of those who fear persecution in their home countries and thus may be deserving of special protection here.
Those who see this as amnesty misconstrue the president's immigration record to date. The Obama administration has spent more money and assigned more boots to patrol the border with Mexico than any previous administration. It has deported nearly 1 million people. This is not an administration that is soft on illegal immigration.
But there's a difference between being strict about the nation's borders and dumb about the oversight of those who already are in the country, obeying its laws, working and paying taxes. Recognizing that it's impossible to expel every person who is here illegally, this policy directs the nation's deportation efforts away from those who are contributing to society and toward those who are degrading it.
Last week's announcement should be the beginning of a debate, not the end of one. The lasting fix, as all reasonable participants in this conversation acknowledge, would be for Congress to pass legislation that secures American borders while providing a route for those here illegally to seek citizenship. President George W. Bush gamely pursued that course with the aid of such ideologically diverse but practical members of Congress as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain (back when Kennedy was still alive and McCain was still practical). With this important action behind him, it is now Obama's turn to, of all things, follow Bush's lead and deliver where his predecessor fell short.