A timid President Barack Obama faced a group of palpably hostile White House correspondents as he announced “deferred action” for young, undocumented immigrants who have waited for years to be offered a path to citizenship through the DREAM Act. In compliance with his executive order, the Department of Homeland Security will merely halt deportations for the next two years of non-criminal, undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30 who were brought to the country as children. Beneficiaries will also receive H-1 visas to live and work legally on a temporary basis.
This election-year ploy to win Latino votes is a patently miserable substitute for the generous, comprehensive measures required to address the plight of the nearly 12 million undocumented. Putting 800,000 young, promising women and men in legal limbo adds just another layer of dysfunction to a fundamentally inoperative immigration system.
President Obama, trying to lay the groundwork for comprehensive immigration reform early in his presidency, appeared tough, appeasing the opposition as he commenced to deport the undocumented with criminal backgrounds by hundreds of thousands. Yet during his first term he failed to provide the moral leadership and pragmatic imperative for comprehensive reform, allowing his vociferous opponents to hijack the issue in the name of “national security” and “jobs for Americans.”
The president, in an announcement barely lasting 10 minutes, called America “a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” Yet he and most other advocates of including the undocumented into the American mainstream have lacked the political courage as well as persuasive powers to spell out the vital importance of immigrants to America.
While four million newborns are added to the American population annually, the country accepts a million immigrants as new residents. Hundreds of thousands more arrive on student, work and tourist visas, never to be repatriated. The overwhelming majority of immigrants who decide to live in this country permanently do so to work and make a better life for themselves and their families.
Those without higher education, fill grueling, low-paying service, agricultural and manufacturing jobs by hundreds of thousands, generating wealth for the native-born and providing the country with abundant food. Scores of foreign students and H-1 visa holders who decide to stay, at the expense of brain drain to their own countries, join America’s hubs of research and productivity from Silicon Valley to the research and academic centers on the Eastern seaboard. Yet many others become independent entrepreneurs and innovators, heirs to a legacy of immigration that has kept America in its position of global leadership.
America is not a nation of immigrants because the first European colonizers arrived here in 1492. In the twenty-first century, America continues to thrive principally due to the influx of immigrants.
The Obama administration has done a miserable job of communicating these facts to the majority of Americans. Their failure has left the field wide open for political opportunists and predators who perpetuate the cant of immigrants stealing jobs from the native born.
President Obama has a realistic shot at a second term. But upon reelection, he must make immigration the centerpiece of his administration in a bold departure from his most recent and timorous performance.
America is indeed a nation of immigrants. Its leader should proudly uphold this banner instead of cowering, explaining, apologizing and offering “deferred action.”
With the DREAM Act once again compromised, the words of Langston Hughes ring as true as ever: “A dream deferred is a dream denied.”
Behrouz Saba is a columnist with New America Media, a national organization of ethnic news agencies.