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The Morton Memo: Is Obama Finally Making a Humane Move on Immigration?

Since Obama’s election in 2008, he has paid only lip service to devising a fair and humane approach towards the issue of immigration. Deportations have gone up and only token gestures of support have been lent to the idea of comprehensive reform. Thus it was all the more surprising when Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton released a June 17 memo on the exercise of discretion in immigration enforcement, which appears at first glance to be the most definitive—and encouraging—step yet taken toward the reassertion of presidential leadership and sanity when it comes to the issue. After more than two years of shuffling and fumbling, is Obama finally finding his balance on immigration? 

The Morton memo, if it’s followed, comes close to a de-facto DREAM Act. That’s still a big if—the memo, directed to all ICE officers, agents and attorneys, is laced with “shoulds,” which are hardly the same as direct orders—but the long list of particulars to be considered in enforcement decisions, and the call for discretion itself, indicate the clearest signs of moderation—and reason—in immigration policy since Obama’s election.

The particulars of the memo include many of the elements of the failed DREAM Act:

The circumstances of the person’s arrival in the United States and the manner of his or her entry, particularly if the alien came to the United States as a young child…
The person’s pursuit of education in the United States, with particular consideration given to those who have graduated from a U.S. high school or have successfully pursued or are pursuing a college or advanced degrees at a legitimate institution of higher education in the United States. 
Whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves, or national guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat…

It’s a long list. Among the favorable criteria: considerations of age, pregnancy, the chances that the immigrant would be granted permanent residency, whether he or she has a spouse, child, or parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. The negative factors are mostly obvious: risks to national security, felons, gang members, or an “egregious record of immigration violations.”

The proof, of course, will be in the execution of the policy. Even the Morton memo may be more electoral politics to bring back an increasingly angry and frustrated Latino community than policy substance. And almost certainly, the hundreds of recent state laws and local ordinances intended to drive illegal immigrants away will continue to drive a lot of U.S. immigration policy. But after two-and-a-half years of hollow presidential promises, and an enforcement regime that was harsher than George W. Bush’s, it’s worth taking note and holding the president’s feet to the fire.

Peter Schrag is a retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee. A paperback edition of his latest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America, is out this month.