Obama, immigration and the American dream

Much of what has been written about President Barack Obama's announcement last week that the federal government will no longer deport illegal immigrants under the age of 30 who came to this country as youngsters concerns the politics of it. As one might expect, the decision helped the incumbent's standing with Latino voters and could prove a factor in certain swing states such as Florida and Colorado where minority voters may hold sway.

But that shouldn't overshadow what remains at the heart of the decision — the fate of those young people who may have grown up in this country, attended school here and in every way (aside from legal presence) behave and think of themselves as Americans. Even some of the most hardened anti-immigrant voices in Congress will acknowledge that these young men and women are not a threat to our society but an asset, and an underused one at that.

We would never suggest that President Obama's choice not to enforce the law in some cases represents real immigration reform on par with what is needed. It is far too modest a change with still much left unsettled about how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants living in this country who do not fit the criteria of this executive order.

It is, however, perfectly sensible under the circumstances, not only because it offers a more humane treatment of a sympathetic group of people but because it's in the national interest. Consider, for instance, that the Obama doctrine would apply only to those who have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned an equivalency, or served in the military. These are young, productive people who should be welcome in any community and represent a building block for the economy.

These are the same young people who are at the center of a related debate in Maryland over whether undocumented immigrants should be able to attend state schools at the same in-state tuition rates as their neighbors. The Maryland Dream Act would provide that opportunity — with certain restrictions — but it has been petitioned to voter referendum this fall.

Immigration has become a hot-button issue in this country and state in recent years. In an economy still recovering from recession, it's all too easy to vilify those who are different, to fear those of a different culture, to resent potential "competitors," and rouse populist anger at those who are entered the U.S., or remained here after a visa expired, illegally.

Yet it is not only impractical, unaffordable and misguided to even consider deporting these young people, it would be self-destructive as well. What the nation needs is to find the means to better incorporate and welcome such individuals to society so that we might harness their ambitions, productivity and drive for the good of all.

The Maryland Dream Act is not just about fairness (giving one group of state taxpayers the same benefits as another), but about leveraging potential. Better that young people capable of learning and achieving are provided that opportunity than denied it. The act contains no shortage of restrictions — students must first go to community college and must be Maryland high school graduates from taxpaying families — so it's difficult to see it as any kind of handout.

Make no mistake, there will always be loud voices in Congress and elsewhere railing against immigrants and offering such fantasies as "self-deportation." Others will simply try to sidestep the issue by claiming President Obama should not be picking and choosing what laws to enforce (as if government officials at the federal, state and local level aren't forced to make such decisions on a daily basis on a variety of matters) or that it should be left to Congress to chart a long-term course for immigration reform.

But that is a thin gruel to serve given the chances of immigration reform ever making it out of Capital Hill. The politics of this are clear: Republicans had better hope that Mitt Romney or perhaps Florida Sen. Marco Rubio can devise a Dream Act-like proposal that can speak in some realistic way to the plight of these young people or the GOP's disdain for Hispanic voters will appear complete. The policy question should be equally obvious: An educated, taxpaying and working young immigrant community is too valuable an asset to waste.

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