The photos were heartening and heartbreaking. Thousands of young people lined up on a sweltering summer day, clutching the papers that chart their lives in America: diplomas and awards, pay stubs and rent receipts, bank statements and tax returns.
But there was one document none of them had: proof of U.S. citizenship, or even a valid visa. They have lives but not legality. They are here but not here. They are neighbors and friends, co-workers and classmates. And yet they are one traffic ticket or computer check away from being sent back to countries they remember dimly, or not at all.
An estimated 1.7 million young people who were brought to the United States as children are living here illegally. They are blameless but stateless. The failure to help them has been a national disgrace. Finally, the Obama administration is taking one small step in the right direction.
Under a new plan, these young people can apply for "deportation deferral." They'd still be illegal, but they could get work permits, driver's licenses, professional certificates. And for two years, at least, the government promises not to throw them out. That's why, when the plan took effect last week, so many braved the heat, and legal jeopardy, to seek advice and file applications.
The plan is far from perfect, but it's much better than nothing. "It's like giving wings to the people that want to fly," Noe Torres, who came from Mexico at age 4, told The New York Times.
Obama's critics accuse him of playing politics and pandering to the Hispanic vote and, of course, that's true, but Republicans have only themselves to blame. Mitt Romney knows about pandering. During the primary season, he eagerly lined up with the party's nativist wing and opposed even modest immigration reform proposals, including the Dream Act -- blocked by a GOP filibuster -- which would have legalized the young people now seeking deportation deferral.
Now Romney is suffering from his self-inflicted wound, and Team Obama would be guilty of malpractice if they didn't rub salt in it. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that eight of 10 Latino voters support deportation deferral, most of them strongly.
Republicans were already in trouble with Hispanics. George Bush won 44 percent of those voters in 2004; the figure dropped to 31 percent for John McCain four years later. Gallup says Romney is down to 25 percent, giving him "the weakest position among Latinos of any presidential contender since 1996."
This year, the Latino vote could be critical in swing states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado. But the future landscape gets even rockier for Republicans. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of Hispanics in college now tops 2 million for the first time, 16.5 percent of the total enrollment. One of every four public school students is Latino.
By choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney missed a chance to strengthen ties to the Hispanic community. Democrats were worried about the appeal of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, also fluent in Spanish, might have been an effective emissary as well.
"Ryan, who comes from a state with only 5 percent Latino voters, has zero connection with Hispanic voters," Andres Oppenheimer, an analyst of Latino trends, wrote in The Miami Herald. "It suggests that Romney has thrown in the towel on the Hispanic vote."
Romney's opposition to deportation deferral is not only politically clueless but also morally defenseless. Those young people, lined up so hopefully with their records and receipts, spoke with power and passion about their adopted land.
"This is my country; it's where my roots are," Nathaly Uribe, who came from Chile as a toddler, told the Los Angeles Times. "It feels great to know that the country that I call home is finally accepting me." Added Bupendra Ram, a native of the Fiji Islands: "This offers us an opportunity to fulfill the dreams I've had since I was a child."
Many of these applicants worry about the election. If he won, would Romney cancel the program? Or track them down and deport their parents? But even those fears could not dissuade them. "My mom decided I should do it," Hazar Parra, who just finished nurse's training, told The New York Times. "Basically, for me to do better and succeed, she's willing to risk everything."
That brave woman, and the others who stand with her, deserve our respect and support. They've earned their wings.