Janet Napolitano put the emphasis where it belonged. On Friday, the secretary of homeland security explained the president’s decision to grant deportation relief to young illegal immigrants: “This is not immunity, it is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion.”
The decision actually builds on the past practice of the administration. The president previously has directed federal prosecutors to apply discretion in choosing whom to deport. Those less likely to face action include the elderly, college graduates and students. Leniency has been applied to those who have made “contributions to the community.” As the Washington Post reported, that has translated since last year into the removal of roughly 20,000 of 300,000 deportation cases.
Now the president has added a new group to the list, illegal immigrants who are no more than 30 years old, who arrived in this country before they were 16 and have lived here for five years. They must have no criminal record, be in school or have served in the military. They haven’t been offered citizenship or permanent legal status. They can apply for a two-year “deferred action,” removing the threat of deportation, allowing them to work legally and obtain repeated extensions.
The president’s executive order evokes the Dream Act, legislation derailed in Congress that would set up a path to citizenship for young people who came illegally to this country with their parents and today meet certain criteria. That proposal long has been worthy of enactment. It became of a casualty of the intense political clash surrounding the nation’s immigration policies.
To be sure, the president is playing his own brand of election-year politicking. Latinos and other immigrant groups have been disappointed with his lack of action. They have been pleading with the White House to take such an intermediate step. Now the president has moved forward, looking, no doubt, to win Latino votes in battlegrounds such as Virginia, Colorado and Florida.
The moment, too, allows the president to play the “we can’t wait” card, his way of drawing a contrast with Republicans blocking his agenda. In addition, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has opposed the Dream Act and voiced severe opposition to illegal immigration, even proposing the concept of “self-deportation.”
The politics are inescapable. What matters more is the policy. In Cleveland last week, the president offered a preview of his decision, arguing: “If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity from all over the world, we won’t deport hardworking, responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here.” So many young illegal immigrants arrived here because of their parents. They didn’t have a choice. Yet in time, they chose to make something of the opportunity.
Surely, with its limited resources and vast immigration challenges, the country has higher priorities than their deportation. That is what the president and the secretary mean by discretion.