Republicans seem befuddled by President Obama's decision to halt deportation of young people brought into the United States illegally by their undocumented parents. Mitt Romney is gobsmacked, Speaker of the House John Boehner is exasperated, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is totally bummed out.
They say their quarrel is with the way the president made an end run around Congress. Senator Rubio claims Mr. Obama's move has forced him to drop his own bill that proposed granting work visas to those who illegally entered the country as little kids, grew up in the USA and now know no other home. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insists the president's unilateral action will make it harder to reach an agreement on immigration reform, sounding as if the issue were not hopelessly mired in the partisan sludge that has gummed up the works in the House and Senate for at least two years.
But it may be that the real reason the Romney campaign and Republican congressional leaders are bugged by President Obama's switcheroo on immigration enforcement is that it is an ingenious political move for which they lack a coherent response.
According to new polls, the new policy is quite popular with most voters -- independent voters in particular. The one segment of the electorate that hates it is the Republican base. This leaves Mr. Romney and company in a quandary. If they flat out condemn the president's action they will please the majority of their party, but they will further alienate Hispanic voters who are already turned off by the hard line, anti-immigration rhetoric Mr. Romney employed to get himself to the right of his conservative opponents in the GOP primaries. An attack on the policy could also hurt Mr. Romney's appeal to the independents whose votes he absolutely needs to win if he hopes to be president.
As a result, Mr. Romney was exceptionally vague when asked about the issue during interviews on NBC and Fox News. Mr. Romney will not say if he would rescind Mr. Obama's order if he reaches the White House. Instead, he spouts generalities about following the right process. Fussing about process never won an election.
This latest kerfuffle over immigration policy comes at a time when the dynamics of immigration are shifting so quickly that old arguments are becoming quickly obsolete. Tirades in favor of a border wall become less relevant in light of statistics that indicate 1.4 million Mexicans headed back to Mexico between 2005 and 2010, an out-migration that may be accelerating. While many of these people were deported through stepped-up efforts of the federal government, many are voluntarily leaving because of tougher state laws and the slump in employment. The self-deportation that Mr. Romney says he favors may actually be working.
There is also the interesting news that immigrants from Asia who come with a high level of education and highly marketable skills now outnumber Hispanic immigrants. Unlike the Mexicans who were taking jobs that Americans did not want to do, the new Asian immigrants are snapping up high paying positions for which too many American kids lack training.
It is way past time for the immigration debate to move beyond hysterics about a Mexican invasion and on to the new challenges. One of those challenges, which is also a huge opportunity, is to utilize the talents of hundreds of thousands of smart young people who have grown up in America but lack legal status. Helping them realize their dreams in the only country they call home would be an act of simple common sense.
President Obama's leap toward that goal is not just smart politics, it is just plain smart.