Immigration overhaul


President Obama, whose administration has deported record numbers of people, bears some responsibility for the nation’s broken immigration system.

So it’s encouraging that Mr. Obama, while he grapples with the debt ceiling, gun control, and Cabinet nominations, is vowing to overhaul U.S. immigration policies, including creation of a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

No one can reasonably argue that Mr. Obama has been soft on illegal immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported record numbers of people during his administration — nearly 410,000 last year alone and 1.2 million in the President’s first term.

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As in the past, many if not most of those who were deported had no criminal records or were convicted of minor offenses such as traffic and immigration-related violations, despite an administration pledge to focus on dangerous criminals and threats to national security.

Between 2007 and 2011, ICE’s Detroit office, which covers Ohio and Michigan, deported, or sent home through so-called voluntary departures, about 35,000 people. Only about a third of them had criminal records.

Advocacy groups have documented numerous human rights abuses by ICE in Michigan, Arizona, and other states. They include withholding food and water from detainees, beatings, and failure to provide needed medical treatment.

The price tag for these policies has been enormous. In 2011, the Obama Administration spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement, exceeding the sum spent on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Mr. Obama failed to redeem his pledge to deliver immigration reform during his first term. He can, with some justification, blame Republican lawmakers, who twice voted down the DREAM Act.

Last year, needing Latino votes during a tough re-election campaign, President Obama did the right thing by issuing an executive order that instituted provisions of the DREAM Act. The order allows young people with good records, who were brought here as children without visas and have grown up essentially as Americans, to qualify for application for citizenship.

The time is right for change. Mr. Obama understands his debt to Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the electorate, who cast 71 percent of their ballots for him last November. Republicans too should understand that their harsh rhetoric on immigration cost them many votes. Do the math: The GOP can’t win another national election without attracting more Latino voters.

An earned path to citizenship would not be a free ride. It could include paying a fine and back taxes, registering with the government, agreeing to learn English, and passing a background check.

But there is no real alternative. Deporting 11 million people is neither possible nor desirable. It would leave the U.S. economy in a shambles. Most illegal immigrants already participate in America’s economic life as responsible, hard-working people.

Providing a legal way for these immigrants to earn citizenship ought to become the central element of an overdue overhaul of the nation’s broken immigration system. Mr. Obama failed to deliver that in his first term. Activists around the country should help make sure he gets it right early in his second term.