Bypassing the sucking, hopeless sinkhole that is the U.S. Congress, Obama announced a new immigration policy, one that invokes an old, and therefore legal, power: He is taking “deferred action” on whether to proceed against hundreds of thousands of people who came to this country illegally.
It is not permanent. He, or any other president, can revoke it. And therein lies part of the brilliance.
Obama is saying to young immigrants who are in school, have graduated from high school or served in the U.S. military and have not gotten in trouble with the law: OK, you can stay. For now.
Further, you can travel on the passport of your country of origin (Mexico or China, for instance) and be allowed back into the United States.
And you will be given a card called an Employment Authorization Document that will allow you to legally get a job.
But what the president did not do is also important. Nobody will be handed a permanent resident card, commonly called a green card. Nobody is being promised citizenship or is being put on a path to citizenship.
And, importantly, you have to come “out of the shadows” and apply for your EAD card. You must register. The card will bear your photograph and fingerprint and a number that allows you to be tracked. You also have to pay your taxes.
So far, Hispanic and civil rights groups have hailed this as a good deal. It is not the Dream Act, which would have put people on track for a green card and eventual citizenship. But versions of the Dream Act have been kicking around for years, and in 2010 the Republicans in the Senate blocked it.
Obama has now done an end run around Congress, and Republicans are howling that the White House has acted politically. Wow. I’ll bet there’s gambling in Casablanca, too.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American, has been talking about introducing his own semi-Dream Act for a while. Rubio appears to be on a shortlist as a running mate for Mitt Romney, who may see Rubio as a way to attract Hispanic voters.
Only 3.5 percent of the Hispanics in this country have Cuban heritage, while 63 percent have a Mexican heritage. But Rubio could have gotten significant Hispanic support for the Republican ticket by introducing an immigration bill. And if he had introduced his bill, how could the Democrats have voted against it?
But Rubio dithered. He never introduced an immigration bill. And while Rubio was talking, Obama was taking action. Rubio is now shocked, dismayed and embarrassed.
As Rubio told “ABC World News” on Friday, “The White House never called us about this, no one reached out to us and told us this was on its way.”
I doubt this was received with anything but laughter at the White House.
But stealing a march on Rubio was only half the strategy. Obama also caught Mitt Romney flat-footed. When Bob Schieffer asked Romney on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday whether he, as president, would repeal what Obama had done, Romney had no answer.
Romney would say only that he would “look at that setting as we reach it.”
And with that, the Obama trap snapped shut. The choice for Hispanic voters is now simple: Vote for Obama, and you are guaranteed a humane immigration policy for your children, relatives, friends, neighbors and fellow Hispanics for the next four years.
Vote for Romney, and you get the uncertainty of which “setting” he chooses to take.
“This is a stroke of political genius,” Bruce Morrison told me. A former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, Morrison was chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, a member of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and House author of the Immigration Act of 1990. He’s now an immigration attorney and lobbies on a wide variety of immigration issues.
“Obama has taken Rubio’s idea and put it into action,” Morrison said. “He has given these people a work permit, the ability to remain in this country, but no permanent status.” Their legal status can be terminated at any time. “But it won’t be terminated by Obama,” Morrison said.
But won’t American citizens resent new competition at a time when jobs are scarce? Couldn’t there be a voter backlash?
“The answer to that is that workers who have legal status are not nearly as much a problem as people without legal status who take any jobs under any conditions,” Morrison said. “And these people are not being handed a job; they are getting the opportunity for a job. A lot currently are paying taxes, but now all of them will pay taxes.”
Morrison also believes, as Obama claims, this will improve national security.
“They now go on a list of who is in this country,” Morrison said. “It never made sense to have millions of unrecognized people, which created a pool within which the truly dangerous can hide.”
So do a checklist on the new Obama policy:
* Good for a limited number of hardworking, honest immigrants? Check.
* Good for America because it will bring in more taxes? Check.
* Good for America because it will increase security? Check.
* Good for Obama politically? Check.
* Good because it shows that a do-nothing Congress is a Congress that this nation can do without? Hooray!
Roger Simon is editor of Politico.