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Editorial: Immigration stopgap a fair move

People hold signs outside the White House in

People hold signs outside the White House in Washington, D.C., during a rally to celebrate President Barack Obama's announcement that his administration will be granted deferred action and work permits to immigrants younger than 30 (June 15, 2012) Credit: MCT

President Barack Obama's decision to stop deporting some immigrants brought into the United States illegally as children is a dramatic bid to do the right thing. Congress can't seem to get it done.

The executive order announced Friday should be called the Dream Act lite. It stops short of providing a path to citizenship for childhood immigrants. But by offering temporary safety from deportation and a chance to obtain renewable, two-year work permits, it puts in place some reasonable reforms that have bipartisan and business support.

Overall, the nation needs an immigration policy that deals pragmatically with the reality of 11 million people in the country illegally. President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a failed bipartisan reform effort. Obama's order, which could affect as many as 800,000 young people, is a temporary and humane step to move this small subset out of the shadows in the only country many have ever known.

It is limited to people younger than 30 who arrived in the country before age 16 and have been here continuously for at least five years. They must be high school graduates or have a history of military service and no criminal record. These individuals didn't make the decision to sneak across the border; in almost all cases their parents did.

The timing of Obama's announcement, just months before the presidential election, is obviously political. And his order has already drawn fire challenging whether he can legally bypass Congress.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's answer is that the new policy is "deferred action" and "an exercise of discretion." She characterized it as part of the administration's policy of focusing its immigration enforcement efforts on removing people who pose a risk to national security or public safety.

Unfortunately, it is, at best, a stopgap. A future president could reverse course with the stroke of a pen. That means there's a real risk that anyone who takes Obama up on his offer and applies for permission to work risks being targeted for deportation in the future.

So Congress still needs to do the right thing and pass the Dream Act as well as broader immigration reform to modernize the legal immigration system, fortify the borders, beef up enforcement and provide some path to legal status for immigrants here illegally. Frustration with the paralysis in Congress on immigration was reason enough for the president to act on his own, but the political challenge it presents to Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, is clearly a factor in the timing.

Friday's order should help Obama shore up his standing with Hispanic voters and others disillusioned by his lack of progress on immigration reform and the record number of people deported on his watch. And it will focus attention on Romney's uncompromising opposition to reform, which he staked out in the GOP primaries. Illegal immigration is a national problem; finding a consensus on the best solution is difficult even for those with the shared goal of doing so. But giving a break to those who came here as children, who went through our schools, played on our teams and volunteered for our military is the one aspect of all this we surely can find agreement on.