Last week featured a rare moment of encouragement in the nation's tiresome and vindictive immigration debate: Thousands of young undocumented immigrants began applying for temporary permits that will allow them to live and work legally in the United States.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the result of a policy shift unveiled by the Obama Administration in June, is a small but significant step. It could help more than a million immigrant students and military veterans who were brought to this country illegally as children and have lived in fear of deportation since.
Leave it to anti-immigration zealots to find a cloud in this silver lining. For them, any measure of relief for illegal immigrants is too much. Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas) suggested that the program amounts to amnesty and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars to carry out. Neither claim is true.
The program doesn't provide a path to legalization for young immigrants, as the Dream Act, which failed to win approval in Congress, would have done. It grants a two-year respite from deportation for those who meet various conditions.
They must be under 31, have come to the United States before they turned 16, have lived here for at least five years, and have no serious criminal convictions. They also must be enrolled in school, or have graduated from high school, or served in the U.S. military. If their applications are granted, they will not be deported for two years, but they do not receive citizenship.
Nor does the program require taxpayers to foot the bill for the application process or for budget shortfalls. Eligible immigrants are required to pay $465 to cover the costs of processing their applications and the fee waivers granted to those who live in foster care or acute poverty.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that runs the program, is funded almost wholly by fees paid by immigrants who seek visas or green cards and employers who sponsor workers. Less than 4 percent of the agency's budget is funded by taxpayers. Mr. Smith and his fellow Republicans know that.
Critics who worry that immigrants will file fraudulent applications should consider that those who apply must provide documents provided by U.S. institutions, such as public schools and the military, as evidence. Surely the Department of Homeland Security can handle that.
Representative Smith is right about one thing, however: This stopgap measure isn't enough to address the country's immigration problems. Only Congress can do that.
-- Los Angeles Times