Why Obama's Deportation Shift Is Good Policy

Barack Obama
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Barack Obama delivers remarks about the Department of Homeland Security's recent announcement in Washington, DC.
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Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children are safe from deportation and can apply for work permits under a new policy announced by the president this morning.

I like this policy.

Key to immigration reform is controlling inflows from the border.  History shows that comprehensive reform is impossible without that, and how to do that is a big, open question.  But this move today has little to do with that.  This is about providing temporary legal status–not a path to citizenship–to young people who have been here for years already.

To get a two-year, renewable work permit, you have to:

• come to the United States under the age of sixteen and not currently be above age thirty;
• continuously reside here for a least five years;
• currently be in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a general education development certificate, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the armed forces;
• never been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety; and

White House officials estimate that the new policy will cover 800,000 undocumented workers, but no one knows how many will step up and reveal themselves as such.  It’s tempting to overestimate take-up, but we’ll have to see.

But this just makes a lot of sense.  To achieve legal status is good for the workers–who then don’t have to hide in the shadows and can enjoy the protections of labor standards like minimum wages, overtime, worker safety rules.  And it’s good for employers, who can employ them without breaking the law.  Just the other day, I was talking to a restaurant owner–a great guy and a job creator!–who was all tied up in knots about this issue.

I like what Homeland Security Sec’y Janet Napolitano said about our immigration rules in this context–we should, of course, enforce them:

But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.

One more thing.  I don’t totally get how the president can do this through executive order – avoiding that gridlock factory known as the congress.  I’m sure they’ll be lots of ink on that in coming days.  But good for him.  I heard John Boehner’s spokesman on MSNBC this morning saying he should have gone through congress.  Hah!  That’s like Lucy ripping Charlie Brown for getting someone else to hold the football.

You can email me at info@jaredbernsteinblog.com. I look forward to your feedback.

Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. From 2009 to 2011, he was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team.

Cross-posted from jaredbersteinblog.com.