Every now and then, the Republican leadership issues a criticism of President Obama that is more or less accurate, more or less attuned to the reality-based universe. Thus it was with Mitt Romney’s declaration about the president’s new directive on immigration: Romney insists that the move is all in the service of rounding up more Latino support for Obama’s re-election campaign.
Last weekend, Republicans howled about Obama’s executive order that would give short-term legal papers to an estimated 800,000 young illegal immigrants as long as they are younger than 30 and came to the United States as children, have committed no major crimes, and have finished high school or served in the military. The provisions are similar to those of the DREAM Act, which Republicans have refused to pass.
Romney groused about Obama’s timing. “I think the timing is pretty clear. If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first three and a half years, not in his last few months,” he told CBS’ Bob Schieffer.
Many commentators have noted that the president desperately needs Latino voters to turn out in droves if he is to prevail in a handful of swing states with a growing Latino base. Obama’s directive, they point out, is likely to energize them. All true.
But it ought to be noted that Romney’s response was also political. He refused to say whether he would reverse the directive if he is elected, afraid of alienating Latino voters more than he already has. Obama is outdrawing him among that crucial bloc by 67 percent to 21 percent, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.
And while the president’s order was blatantly political, it has the added appeal of being the right thing to do. Not only is it morally reprehensible for the United States to expel a group of young people who have done nothing wrong, but it is also economically shortsighted. This country needs them.
With many Western countries experiencing depressed birth rates and aging populations that will stifle economic growth, the U.S. has been lucky to have a population boom due to immigration — legal and illegal. Lots of those immigrants — legal and illegal — have attended college or completed their degrees, another plus for an economy that needs a better-educated workforce.
Versions of the DREAM Act have been kicking around for a decade as members of Congress realized that a number of young illegal immigrants had become fully acculturated as Americans — speaking English, playing not only soccer but also baseball and tennis, milling about at the local mall.
Some, like former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, only learned as teenagers that they were not citizens. They had been brought to the U.S. as children. And they want nothing more than to be full-fledged citizens of the country they view as home.
For the record, Democrats have tried to pass the DREAM Act during Obama’s tenure. But the Republican electorate, aging and overwhelmingly white, has become increasingly xenophobic; it is hostile to any effort — no matter how reasonable — to put illegal immigrants on a path toward citizenship. Scared off by threats from more conservative rivals, Republicans such as John McCain have backed away from their previous support.
The president seemed to believe that he could lure them back by showing that he was prepared to enforce border security even more harshly than Bush did. (Obama spent three long years believing that he could compromise with a recalcitrant GOP.) Obama has deported 1.2 million during his tenure, while Bush deported 1.6 million in eight years, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, illegal border crossings have also dropped precipitously.
But Republicans still resist modest measures to put model would-be Americans on a path to citizenship. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had talked of sponsoring a measure similar to the DREAM Act, but GOP congressional leaders made clear they would not support it.
Obama should have issued this directive months ago. If the campaign season forced his hand, that’s still a very good thing.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)