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C. Fraser Smith: Politics, realities and immigration

When it’s someone you know – even someone you read about in the newspaper – the issue becomes more urgent. Abstraction gives way to flesh and blood.

An “illegal alien” becomes a mother, a father, a son.

You read about a woman whose granddaughter has been haunted for years by the specter of deportation. The grandmother has been haunted as well, of course.

After President Barack Obama’s executive order was announced last week, the grandmother wept. “Undocumented” young people could stay for at least two years without fear of deportation.

“Now I know I can’t lose you,” the grandmother said.

We should all have been weeping. How many granddaughters and grandsons have we lost?

We know a young man sent back to Central America after 10 years in the U.S. He was 12 when he arrived. He wants to go to law school. The granddaughter wants to be a researcher in genetics.

“These are young people who study in our schools. They play in our neighborhoods. They’re friends with our kids. They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” the president said.

Why did it take this long?

Many of us surely agree. So why has it taken so long for the merest ray of sunshine to slip through? Because a haunting specter for one politician is a splendid opportunity for another.

The president’s dramatic move is marked down as political, and surely it was. He wants the Hispanic vote. And his all-but-certain opponent, Mitt Romney, had been running in a primary race dominated by anti-immigration candidates, forcing him to outflank them.

The president’s move highlights the fact. Mr. Romney’s modus operandi has taken flip-flopping to new levels. But he could hardly disavow what he’s been saying for the last year – not immediately anyway.

And that’s just part of the Romney dilemma.

The president’s move might make it harder for his opponent to win Florida, a key state. If Romney wants Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as his running mate, he has to find a way now to gloss over a Rubio proposal to treat the young “undocumenteds” in much the way the president has chosen.

Nailing down votes

Some argue that the economy trumps immigration as an issue. Perhaps so, but the Obama order went a long way toward nailing down one of the critical voting blocks.

It’s hard to believe that a Hispanic grandmother or mother or father won’t be inclined to vote for the man who actually did something to lift the threat of deportation.

The whole country – not just Hispanics – appears to be moving in the direction of sympathy for those young people. Stories like those of the Maryland grandmother were surely important in our legislature’s decision to pass a version of the Dream Act in 2011.

Many in this state want to repeal the law to be sure, and that proposal will be on the ballot in November.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has started raising money to support those who want the law to stand. His campaign apparatus appears ready to deploy on behalf of the Dream Act.

I’m guessing that stories like the grandmother’s will drive the issue. It’s been said over and over, but we are a nation of immigrants – some of whom were “illegals’ in the beginning.

All they did was pay taxes, play by the rules and build the country.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.