The Obama Administration announced its intention last week to review the cases of 300,000 immigrants who are ensnared in the nation's deportation process, and to institute new guidelines. The goal is to distinguish between those who pose threats to public safety and those who are merely in the country illegally.
Reaction reverberated along well-worn lines. Enforcement hawks denounced the move as amnesty. Immigration doves worried that it would substitute for more- comprehensive efforts to fix the nation's broken immigration system. Both sides have reason for concern.
Yet failing to please the extremes in this debate is hardly proof of failure. This is a sensible plan that offers at least temporary relief for deserving students, veterans, elderly people, crime victims, and those with family -- including same-sex partners -- in the United States.
It should not substitute for broader reform. But it will relieve needless suffering until such a measure passes, as it must.
Among those who will benefit are so-called DREAM Act students -- young men and women who are in the country because their parents brought them here as children. They are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities; to deport these students after investing in their education is neither smart nor compassionate.
Mr. Obama's policy will effectively allow them to stay, at least for a time, by acknowledging the obvious fact that they are more desirable than immigrants who have committed crimes in the United States. Illegal immigrants who have served in the U.S. military would receive the same protection.
There are other benefits. Backlogged immigration courts can clear some of their dockets and give more attention to serious criminals whom this country is most eager to be rid of. They can tend to the details of those who fear persecution in their home countries and thus may deserve special protection here.
Those who call this amnesty misconstrue the President's immigration record. This administration has spent more money and assigned more boots to patrol the border with Mexico than any previous one. It has deported nearly 1 million people. It is not soft on illegal immigration.
But there's a difference between being strict about the nation's borders and dumb about the oversight of those who already are in the country, obeying its laws, working, and paying taxes. It's impossible to expel every person who is here illegally. This policy directs the nation's deportation efforts away from those who are contributing to society and toward those who are degrading it.
Last week's announcement should be the start of a debate, not the end of one. The lasting fix, as all reasonable participants in this conversation agree, would be for Congress to pass legislation that secures American borders while providing a route for those who are here illegally to seek citizenship. With this important action behind him, it is now up to Mr. Obama to deliver on that broader goal.