The timing is purely political; attempting to again make illegal immigration a major factor in the upcoming presidential campaign will ultimately help Democrats, not Republicans.
The Democrats are worried that Hispanics have become disillusioned with President Obama, who won 67 percent of their votes in 2008. The president needs not only to win big among Hispanic voters, but he also needs another historic Hispanic turnout in key states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.
Democrats hope to draw Republicans into a repeat of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, which turned off Hispanic voters. If Republicans fall for the trap -- and they're likely to, given the party's current presidential primary battle to anoint a credible conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney -- they'll throw away the chance of winning back that 40-plus percent of Hispanics who voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
The irony in the administration's new posture is that it has been more aggressive in deporting illegal immigrants than any administration in recent history. Last year, the U.S. had the highest deportation numbers on record: nearly 400,000. Since President Obama took office, more than a million illegal immigrants have been deported.
Many of those deportees -- over 51,000 -- were real criminals. They were drug dealers, murderers, rapists, child molesters and other felons. But the vast majority of them were accused of less-serious offenses often related to their illegal status, driving without a license or other traffic violations. Some had minor offenses that went back decades, and some had no criminal history at all.
No consensus exists among Americans to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants who reside in the country now. Indeed, even the hardest-line anti-immigrant groups prefer "attrition through enforcement"; they favor going after employers who illegally hire undocumented immigrants rather than mass deportation. And even states that have passed tough anti-illegal immigrant laws are now having second thoughts.
Alabama legislators, for example, are considering re-writing their new law. Deemed the toughest in the nation, the Alabama law makes it mandatory for everyone in the state -- including native-born Alabamans -- to show proof of citizenship before they can get their license plates renewed, get their garbage collected by the city, renew their business licenses or engage in any other government transactions. "The longer this bill has been out, the more unintended consequences we have found," GOP state senator Slade Blackwell told The New York Times this week. "All of us realize we need to change it."
If Republicans were smart, they'd embrace the new Obama rules as a practical way to clear the backlog of deportations by focusing on actual criminals. They'd also be wise to create a path to legalization for those who came here as children and who have lived exemplary lives since.
Thousands of illegal immigrants -- some of whom came as infants-in-arms -- are living in a shadow-world in which they can graduate from high school at taxpayer expense but cannot legally be employed, obtain a drivers license or travel by plane. These individuals have no "home" to go back to. They are de facto Americans who are deprived of the right and responsibility to work, pay taxes, serve in the military and contribute their talents to the communities in which they live. Punishing these individuals does almost as much harm to the rest of us as it does to them.
The Obama administration may be cynically using its new rules for political advantage, but Republicans could turn the issue on its head by embracing a new Dream Act to grant legal status to illegal immigrants who come here as children and complete college or enter the military. It wasn't all that long ago that conservative Republicans like Senators Orrin Hatch, Jon Kyl, Charles Grassley, Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn supported the Dream Act. It's not only the smart political move for Republicans to do so again -- it's also the right thing to do.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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