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Editorial

Get moving on immigration reform

If anything at all is to happen on this politically thorny issue, President Obama will have to shape the debate by using the administrative powers of his office.

May 12, 2011
(Charles Dharapak/AP Photo )

Since taking office, President Obama has repeatedly called on Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. In a speech in Texas on Tuesday, he reiterated the reasons for bringing the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living and working in this country out of the shadows.

He explained that immigrants bring innovation and contribute to the economy. But as long as they remain illegal, their cheap labor suppresses wages for American workers. Undocumented workers become prey for unscrupulous employers who take advantage of them. The current system, the president noted, doesn't work even for those seeking to enter the U.S. legally. Visa policies keep families separated, often for years, and discourage highly skilled workers and talented students from putting down roots.

Obama is absolutely right in his critique, and he's right to call on Republicans to move beyond their enforcement-only rhetoric. But he must do more. Convening occasional meetings with advocates and urging bipartisan support for reform are not sufficient. If anything at all is to happen on this politically thorny issue, the president will have to shape the debate by using the administrative powers of his office.

He can begin by instructing the Department of Homeland Security to use prosecutorial discretion when deciding which immigrants will be hauled into the overburdened immigration court system. Cases involving immigrants who have been convicted of violent crimes should take priority over those with no criminal convictions. And the administration should help the undocumented spouses and relatives of U.S. citizens by allowing those who have applied for green cards to remain in the U.S. while their cases are reviewed.

Obama needs Congress to act as well. On Wednesday, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) reintroduced the DREAM Act, which offers a conditional pathway to citizenship to young illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. And Democrats are expected to reintroduce the Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. AgJOBS would allow certain undocumented farmworkers to legalize their immigration status if they can prove they have worked at least 150 days in the fields for the last two years. Both bills should be passed.

"The overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families," Obama said Tuesday. Now he must make it a priority to fix the deeply broken system.

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