The Administration’s announcement last week that it would not deport DREAM Act eligible youth once again catapulted immigration to the forefront of the presidential race as both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney seek to win the Latino vote.  Both candidates recently addressed Latino elected officials at their meeting in Florida showcasing their sharply contrasting political ideologies at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.  Both men seek the highest office in a land where a badly broken immigration policy has led to the proliferation of ugly, racially charged state immigration laws in places like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia.  Suddenly, in the wake of the Administration’s Deferred Action announcement and the U.S. Supreme Court’s imminent decision on Arizona’s SB1070, the immigration debate couldn’t be more electric.  With Election Day less than five months away, Americans are becoming increasingly energized and paying closer attention to what the candidates are saying.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Under the President Obama’s initiative, undocumented immigrants can get a temporary reprieve from deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before the age of 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military.  This policy could help an estimated 800,000 to 1,200,000 promising young immigrants come out of the shadows, sustain themselves economically until Congress fixes the immigration system, and help re-build our economy.

Romney has struggled to offer a consistent, even coherent, response to the president’s directive.  While he attacked the DREAM Act during the GOP primary, Romney now criticizes Obama’s new policy because it is a temporary, not permanent solution.

At the Republican convention later this summer, Romney will likely focus on the economy.  He argues that as a successful businessman he can address what the Latino community needs most: jobs and opportunity for their children. The GOP has so far bet that Latinos’ see the economy, not immigration, as their number one priority.  Maybe so, but one cannot focus on one to the exclusion of the other because the two are inextricably intertwined.  What’s more, if Romney ignores immigration he will miss a golden opportunity.  All credible studies show that a sound immigration policy will help revitalize America’s economy.  Our current immigration policies are wholly inadequate to support much needed economic development and recovery.  Immigration reform that takes into account the needs of American families and business, and restores due process, will provide fertile ground for economic growth.  Comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants, will lead to greater tax revenue, new businesses and jobs for US workers, and aid in in our economic recovery.

Romney’s own immigration policy is anything but clear.  During the primaries he embraced the anti-immigrant restrictionist fringe.  Now that he has effectively secured the Republican nomination he finds himself in a politically awkward position.  He must tack toward the center to pick up the independent voters in swing states like Ohio.  But, at the same time, he must be careful not to offend the right wing GOP base whom he will need to win in November.  In his speech before Latino elected officials, Romney said he would “put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure.”  He also said that he would make it easier for legal immigrants to bring their spouses and children to America, as well as beef up temporary work visas for low-skilled workers.  Finally he hinted at a plan for more visas for high skilled workers, but he did not address the question whether, if elected, he would overturn President Obama’s initiative.

DREAMers who will qualify under the President’s initiative have made the connection between immigration reform and economics. These promising youth, whose only impediment to becoming fully integrated members of our society is their immigration status, are eager to give back to their communities and add to America’s economic and social fabric.  If Romney bases his campaign on the economy, but fails to develop effective common sense solutions to America’s immigration dysfunction, he will do so at his peril.

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