Exclusive: A Nation of Laws and a Nation of Immigrants

The President explains his decision to no longer deport undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the Department of Homeland Security's recent announcement in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 15, 2012 in Washington, DC.

This week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new actions to continue to improve our nation’s immigration policy in order to make it more fair, efficient, and just for certain young people sometimes known as “Dreamers.”

These are young people who study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, are friends with our kids, and pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart and minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants, and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

That’s what gave rise to the DREAM Act, a bill that says that if your parents brought you here as a child, if you’ve been here for five years, and you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, you can one day earn your citizenship. Both parties wrote that bill.

A year and a half ago, Democrats passed the DREAM Act in the House. It got 55 votes in the Senate, but Republicans blocked it.  The bill hasn’t really changed since Republicans co-wrote it. The need hasn’t changed. And it’s still the right thing to do. The only thing that has changed, apparently, is the politics.

It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans. They’ve been raised as Americans and know this nation as their own. To expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents or because of the inaction of politicians makes no sense.

So in the absence of any action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, what DHS has taken steps to do is focus immigration enforcement resources in the right places. We prioritized border security, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history. Today, there are fewer illegal crossings than at any time in the past 40 years. We prioritized our resources and used discretion about whom to prosecute, focusing on criminals who endanger our communities rather than students who are earning their education. We’ve improved on that discretion carefully and thoughtfully.

(PHOTOS: Behind the Cover: America’s Undocumented Immigrants)

As the next step, effective immediately, DHS is lifting the shadow of deportation from these young people.  Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.

Now, let’s be clear, this is not amnesty or immunity, and it is not a path to citizenship. This is not a permanent fix, but rather a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.

Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because deserving young people should be able to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs. Reform that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty about the workers that they’ll have. Reform that gives our science and technology sectors certainty that the young people who come here to earn their PhDs won’t be forced to leave and start new businesses in other countries. Reform that continues to improve our border security, and lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

Just six years ago, the unlikely trio of John McCain, Ted Kennedy and President Bush came together to champion this kind of reform. I was proud to join 23 Republicans in voting for it. So there’s no reason that we can’t come together and get this done.

I believe that, eventually, enough Republicans in Congress will come around to that view as well because it is the right thing to do for our economy — something CEOs throughout the country agree with — and it is the right thing to do for our national security. Above all, it is the right thing to do, period.

We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world. We raised it with its light to the world. What makes us American is not a question of what we look like or what our names are. What makes us American is our shared belief in the enduring promise of this country – and our shared responsibility to leave it more generous and more hopeful than we found it.

MORE: Cover Story: We Are Americans, Just Not Legally