President Barack Obama's decision to allow younger illegal immigrants who came to this country as children to legally remain in the United States is a progressive move toward a more sensible immigration policy. It does not provide a path to citizenship, and it does not let Congress escape its responsibility to adopt sweeping reforms. But it is a humane approach that focuses deportation efforts on those who pose a greater threat to the country, and it protects young people who were brought here by their parents and who have made positive contributions.
The policy change announced Friday allows illegal immigrants to avoid deportation if they are younger than 30 years old and were brought to the United States before they turned 16. They have to have been in the country for at least five straight years and have no criminal history. They also have to be high school graduates or hold a GED, or have served in the military. If they meet those conditions, they will not be deported and they will be able to apply for two-year work permits that can be regularly renewed.
The positive changes will affect an estimated 800,000 immigrants, including many in Florida who were brought here by their parents, educated in public schools and call the Sunshine State their home. They should provide some measure of stability to immigrant neighborhoods, easing fears that young people who have contributed to the community will be uprooted and deported to countries where they don't know anyone or perhaps even the language.
As Obama explained, this policy change is not amnesty or immunity. It is not a path to citizenship. It also falls short of the Dream Act, which would have given young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they completed at least two years of college or military service. Congress has failed to pass the Dream Act, which at one point had bipartisan support until it became a political football. The new Obama policy resembles what Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has talked about in his search for a way forward, and it should not prevent Rubio from moving ahead in developing his legislation. Rubio called the president's policy change "welcome news" but complained it will make it harder politically to reach an agreement.
Of course there is a political angle to the policy change. Obama must solidify his support among Hispanic voters if he is to win re-election, even though Republican Mitt Romney has opposed the Dream Act and repeats harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric. And Republicans criticized the president's action as an end run around Congress even though it is their inaction that triggered it. There is no reason Congress could not change the debate by passing the Dream Act, or by at least embracing legislation contemplated by Rubio that would write into federal law the same essentials of Obama's new policy. Yet in Washington's election-year gridlock, that probably is a dream.
The president's policy change should bring relief to thousands of families in Florida and elsewhere whose children have played by the rules but faced deportation for decisions they were too young to make themselves. The disappointment is not that it goes too far, as Obama's critics claim. It is that it does not go far enough. One day Congress is going to have to summon the courage to deal with broad immigration reform in a way that is humane, pragmatic and comprehensive.