Two vastly different approaches toward immigration are on display this week, and the contrasts will get sharper as the general election campaign for president unfolds. Mitt Romney, whose anti-immigration rhetoric is the harshest among the Republican candidates for president, falsely accused President Barack Obama of failing to tackle comprehensive reform. At the same time, the Obama administration made a number of pragmatic moves that recognize not all illegal immigrants are the same. With congressional Republicans refusing to act on comprehensive reform, the president has no choice but to take incremental action himself.
The administration published a proposed new rule on Monday that would make it easier for illegal immigrants who are immediate family members of American citizens to apply for a legal visa. They would be able to remain in the United States while they apply for legal status by claiming that leaving a child, parent or spouse who is a citizen would create "extreme hardship.'' After their legal status is approved, they would have to return to their native country for perhaps a week to pick up their visa. That would make it easier for perhaps 1 million illegal immigrants, including thousands in Florida, to come out of the shadows and stay in the United States legally.
Some Republicans, of course, already are deriding the rule change as an amnesty. It is nothing of the sort. It affects only how applications for legal status are processed, and it would be an improvement over current rules. Now the rules can force illegal immigrants to remain in hiding because they often have to return to their native countries for lengthy stays with no assurances they will be able to legally return. Mexican workers who are in this country illegally, for example, are often reluctant to risk returning to Mexican cities filled with drug-related violence for long periods with no assurance their visas will be granted.
Of course, a broader approach would be for Congress to follow Obama's recommendation and pass the Dream Act. It would create a clear path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. But congressional Republicans oppose the Dream Act and so does Romney, who has promised to veto it. That makes it all the more ludicrous that Romney accused Obama of breaking his promise to pursue immigration reform in a speech on Monday in Wisconsin. That would be the same Romney who illogically expects all 11 million undocumented immigrants to "self-deport."
The fact is that illegal immigration has been dropping because of tougher enforcement along the nation's southern border and a slumping economy that makes jobs harder to find. As Republicans portray Obama as too lenient on immigration, a record number of illegal immigrants were deported last year even as prosecutors were given more discretion to focus on those with criminal records or few ties in the United States. Officials announced this week that 3,168 were arrested in the latest operation, and nearly half had felony convictions.
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Immigration will be a key issue in the presidential election, particularly for Hispanic voters in Florida and elsewhere. The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform, including the Dream Act, and a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million illegal immigrants as former President George W. Bush once advocated. While Obama makes slow progress as Congress stonewalls, Romney relies on familiar anti-immigrant rhetoric and offers no workable alternative.