Globe Editorial

Obama’s immigration policy points in the right direction

August 29, 2011

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THE OBAMA administration’s new initiative to direct federal resources toward deporting the most dangerous of the people who enter the country illegally, rather than treating all illegals equally, makes good sense. No matter how much money is devoted to the problem of illegal immigration, the solution can’t come from hunting down every one of the estimated 12 million people who are here illegally and flying them home. So making sure that authorities go after the most dangerous ones first should be a no-brainer.

Last spring, after some local police forces complained that nonviolent people whom they picked up incidentally were being subject to deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton directed his staff to focus on deporting those who pose a threat to national security or public safety. But his words weren’t enough to transform a large and decentralized immigration apparatus. The new government-wide policy lays out procedures for the entire system, including immigration judges at the Justice Department, and finally brings enforcement practices in line with the administration’s priorities.

For example, the new initiative would give Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, through a task force comprised of federal agencies, the ability to provide relief from deportation in cases that would cause undue hardship. Thus, she would have the authority to spare a high-school valedictorian who grew up in the United States from being sent “home’’ to a nation his parents left when he was a toddler.

There is not much more that the administration can do without congressional cooperation. The Republican majority in the House has essentially silenced any hope for a comprehensive solution, which would combine enforcement with a guest-worker program, and could not even muster a majority to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for people who came to the country illegally as children, grew up here, and went to college or joined the military.

Politicians and activists who focus exclusively on a “law-and-order’’ approach to illegal immigration undermine the larger interests of law enforcement by insisting that all undocumented Americans are equally culpable. They’re not. Separating those who commit crimes from those who are simply trying to eke out a living is the first step toward an orderly process for coping with a serious and long-neglected problem. No one should benefit from illegal activity, and giving guest-worker status to peaceful, undocumented workers who follow the laws and pay taxes does not give them a leg up on others who have sought to come here lawfully.

President Obama’s new policy is a limited step, but one that points in the right direction. In the absence of of a comprehensive solution to the problem of illegal immigration, a little compassion to those most deserving - and the swift deportation of those who are not - is, at least, a good start.