Many conservatives reject President Obama's recent policy to defer action against illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. But as a conservative who supports the president's decision, I think it's important to seriously engage the arguments both for and against the policy.
First, let me explain what the Obama program does and does not do. It explicitly does not grant legal status to any group, even those who came illegally as infants or children. Those who are eligible for deferred action are given no path to permanent residency or to citizenship. They are not eligible for government assistance programs that bar other illegal immigrants.
What the federal program does do is to make a decision not to divert limited immigration enforcement resources by targeting for removal illegal immigrants who demonstrate they came here as children and have led exemplary lives ever since. Applicants must be 30 years old or under; have come here before the age of 16 and resided continuously for the previous five years; have completed high school or be in the process of earning a degree or served in the military; have no felony or serious misdemeanor convictions; and have paid taxes, if owed. Those who demonstrate their eligibility will be given temporary employment authorization. Recipients must renew their applications every two years.
So why do conservatives generally oppose the policy? First, they say, every nation has a sovereign right to control its borders and to decide who may become a citizen. Second, conservatives believe that the rule of law is one of the fundamental bases of democracy, and if people are allowed to flout the law without consequences, we encourage contempt for the rule of law. Third, conservatives object to the president having bypassed Congress by enacting a policy that they assert was twice rejected when it was proposed as legislation.
The first principle seems indisputable to me; of course, the U.S. should control its borders and has a right to decide whom to admit and to whom it will grant citizenship. Citizenship has always been restricted, although under increasingly inclusive eligibility -- and remains so today.
But for most of our history as a nation, we have not barred entry to the U.S. or restricted residency to anyone except those who posed a health, security or criminal risk. The first meaningful restrictions were aimed at the Chinese and later other Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans. These laws were intended to keep out certain people on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion -- a repugnant policy that would be inconceivable today.
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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