Obama’s immigration act is a game-changer

You should not underestimate the electricity that has gone through immigrant and Hispanic neighborhoods like those in my district in Chicago since President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that they would temporarily protect immigrant youths eligible for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act from deportation. In two month’s time, when the first group of DREAMers comes forward to affirmatively apply for protection from deportation, it will be similar in many ways to how some people felt when same-sex couples were granted marriage licenses or African-Americans were allowed to register to vote in the South.

As in those occurrences, DREAMers coming forward will mark a new chapter, but not the last chapter, in a long struggle for inclusion in society. What these young undocumented workers are being offered is temporary and incomplete, but tremendously important to them. And while it does not represent protection for their parents or neighbors, who might also be assets to their communities, it serves as a dramatic symbol to the rest of the nation that times are changing.

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In the short run, as many as 800,000 undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years and who arrived before they were 16 years old, and who have stayed out of trouble and pursued an education, will be able to live and work without immediate threat of deportation. They will be able to work, to drive and to conduct their lives in many ways like the U.S. citizens they grew up with and went to school with.

Those who will benefit from the new announcement are future American leaders who grew up with my children and your children and only want America to embrace them as much as they themselves have embraced America. This is not the country of their birth, but for almost all of them, this is and will be the only country they call home. The action the Obama administration is taking recognizes that reality and takes the first step toward saying to these young immigrants, “Welcome home.”

Experts inside and outside of government — from the staff at Homeland Security, former general counsels at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, legal scholars of all stripes, scores of senators, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and a range of others — have been telling the president he is within his legal authority to act in this manner. The president and his Cabinet are exercising powers previous administrations have used to protect our national interest with regard to the application of our immigration and deportation laws.

Republicans who have treated immigrants as political punching bags instead of people are now in a bind. Mitt Romney, when pressed repeatedly this past weekend to say whether or not he would revoke the president’s extension of temporary protections for those who would qualify for the DREAM Act, refused to answer. He has previously said he would veto the DREAM Act, that he sees laws like those passed in Arizona as a “model” for the country and that the hallmark of his immigration policy is that undocumented immigrants find things so miserable here that they deport themselves.

Obama’s leadership, and Romney’s insistence that immigrants are nothing more than pawns to be used as a political wedge issue, presents a clear choice for America. The president now welcomes the contributions of student achievers in America. Romney believes they should be deported. The president stands up against divisive and unfair laws like those passed in Arizona. Romney believes they are models for our future. The president looks at immigrants and sees people who want to build a better America. Romney looks at immigrants and sees an opportunity to pander to the extreme right wing of his party.

I believe this is a defining moment on a key national policy, and the difference between Republicans and Democrats could not be more stark. The Democratic vision, which has long represented a bipartisan, sensible middle ground on this issue, is to allow legal immigration through a controlled and orderly process and get those who are here already into a fair system where they are on the books, paying more taxes and playing by the rules. The Republican vision seems to be little more than anger, finger-pointing and partisan politics. I’m eager to have the American people choose.

Extending temporary relief from deportation to DREAMers starts the process of reforming our immigration system, both because it envisions a future where mass deportation is not the centerpiece of our policy and because it will reshape the political landscape. I have little doubt that the millions of Hispanic citizens, many of whom have been frustrated by the slow pace of progress under Obama, will be reenergized by the president fighting for them. As a policy, this is a necessary, if modest, change. As a political moment in time, this is a game-changer.

Gutierrez was first elected to Congress from the 4th District of Illinois in 1992 and is the chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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