Steve Chapman
When you hear of people in Chicago sleeping on the sidewalk to be first in line in the morning, you may figure they are hoping to snag tickets for Lady Gaga or a Cubs World Series. But those were not the explanation Wednesday when thousands lined up at Navy Pier. They didn't want to get something. They wanted to avoid getting something: a deportation order.

It was a scene that immediately put every American into one of two groups: those heartened by the throngs of illegal immigrants thirsting to stay in this country, and those appalled. It also framed a choice for voters, because the crowd was responding to a decision by President Barack Obama to stop deporting some foreigners who arrived without benefit of the law.

It's not really accurate to call them foreigners, though. These are young people who were brought here when they were still children. Many arrived as infants or toddlers; many speak English like natives; and many have no memory of their birth country. Everything about them says "American" except their birth certificates.

For years, they've had to live with the possibility of being caught by immigration agents and evicted from the only home they know. But in June, Obama announced the administration would stop removing those who meet certain criteria.

The exemption would cover those under age 31 who came before age 16, have lived here five years or more, are attending school or have graduated from high school or have served in the military, and have no serious criminal record.

The reprieve would last two years -- or, possibly, until Mitt Romney moves into the White House. Republicans in Congress denounced the change, and their prospective nominee says, "I will build my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure."

The change does more than lift the threat of being deported. It also lets those affected work legally, qualify for college financial aid and get driver's licenses. Unlike the farsighted Dream Act, which Congress spurned, it doesn't provide them a path to citizenship or any permanent immunity.

Critics say Obama has brazenly usurped the authority of the legislative branch by implementing something he couldn't get lawmakers to pass. But the executive has long exercised discretion over which illegal immigrants to banish and which to keep. Utah's Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff supports Romney but says, "This is clearly within the president's power."

John Lennon, who should not have been allowed in because of a drug conviction, was in line to be deported in the early 1970s until his lawyer got the immigration agency to classify him a "non-priority," allowing him to stay until his death in 1980.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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