Mitt Romney's illegal immigration problem: Would he reverse Obama's order?

Some young illegal immigrants can begin applying for deportation deferrals Wednesday under a politically popular move by President Obama in June. It puts Mitt Romney in a bit of a pickle.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
People fill out paperwork inside the Embassy of Honduras Consular Section in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 14. Some young undocumented immigrants begin applying Wednesday for the protections against deportation promised by President Obama in June.

As some young undocumented immigrants begin applying Wednesday for the protections against deportation promised by President Obama in June, a thorny political problem for a potential President Romney is taking shape. 

Mitt Romney has suggested that Mr. Obama's directive to defer deportations for illegal immigrants pursuing their education or in military service is little more than an election-year ploy. But as president, would Mr. Romney be willing to undo a politically popular decision that conservatives have derided as an unconstitutional power grab "poisoning the well" of immigration reform? 

“How do you keep from totally angering your base, which is very anti-illegal immigration, and at the same time come up with solutions” for a sympathetic part of the undocumented community, asks Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that urges lower immigration levels.

Congressional Republicans, led by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas and his Senate counterpart, Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, have been incensed by the president’s decision – and are looking to Romney to set it right.

“The President’s amnesty for potentially millions of illegal immigrants is a breach of faith with the American people and the rule of law. This Administration’s decision to impose amnesty without going through Congress is contrary to the Constitution. I am confident that a President Romney will follow the law and work with Congress to address immigration issues,” Congressman Smith said in a statement sent by e-mail to the Monitor. 

But Mr. Beck's position shows the problem’s political sensitivity. His group has fought tooth and nail against comprehensive immigration reform in the past, but he is suggesting that there’s a need for some sort of solution for young illegal immigrants. 

Congress has tried to address the issue before, most notably in the DREAM Act, which stalled in the Senate in 2010. Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an attempt to find an executive-branch workaround.

An estimated 1.2 million undocumented immigrants are eligible to apply under DACA, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates. To qualify, applicants must be under age 31, have lived in the US for five or more years consecutively, served in the military or be pursuing an education, have come to America before age 16, and possess no significant criminal record. 

Successful applicants gain a two-year deferral from deportation proceedings and the ability to apply for work authorization and a Social Security card, all of which are renewable at the end of the two-year period. 

“I think [Romney’s] got a real soft spot for these illegal aliens who were brought here at a very young age,” Beck says. “On the other hand, I think he recognizes that you can’t have one amnesty after another.”

Some conservative observers say that Obama, by bypassing Congress, may have hurt the chances for long-term immigration reform by burning potential GOP partners such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida. 

“The problem is that his waiver decision, which I think is an abuse of his waiver authority, really poisons the water in terms of trying to find an actual solution to the problem,” said Matthew Spalding, a vice president of American studies at the Heritage Foundation. “From an immigration reform point of view, the point that is tragic is there was on the Hill some legislative discussions going on about crafting a way to address this particular problem.”

But Romney's sweeping vision for immigration reform – including building a high-tech border fence, implementing a national e-Verify employment system, and changing the nation’s temporary worker program – would be difficult to pass through a gridlocked Congress. 

In the meantime, many young undocumented immigrants are worried that Romney, if elected president, could reverse course on DACA. It is “the elephant in the room,” says Jorge Acuña, an undocumented student from Germantown, Md., who emigrated from Colombia when he was 7. 

But even if Romney did back out of DACA, the overall policy might remain in force for many months. Making abrupt changes would be difficult for a new administration just getting acquainted with the gears of government, says David Martin, a former principal deputy general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, who was part of Obama’s transition team at the department.  

“They may choose not to extend it, they may not take new applications ... but you don’t turn things around right away anyway,” says Mr. Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

Of course, the former Massachusetts governor could eliminate the uncertainty by specifying what he plans to do. 

“If the Republican Party really understood the importance of this population, particularly for the future of our country,” says Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, “then Mitt Romney should confirm that this isn’t a change in policy that he would make.”

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