When respected, albeit left-leaning, members of the punditocracy, like Chris Matthews and Maureen Dowd, begin to make hard right turns, it’s time to pay close attention.

Yesterday, in reaction to the Christmas Day suicide bomb attempt on Northwest Flight 253 as it approached Detroit, Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, came closer than ever before to embracing what sounded like race- and faith-based profiling of air travelers and the willing surrender of large chunks of our civil rights if those measures would make us safer.

Today, Dowd, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, likened President Obama to Spock (not Benjamin, the anti-war baby doctor, but the famous Vulcan on Star Trek). She assailed the Commander in Chief’s belated acknowledgment of “a systemic failure” and a “catastrophic breach of security.” Dowd then railed on in caustic terms no less withering than those she used against the Bush administration:

If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?

We are headed toward the moment when screeners will watch watch-listers sashay through while we have to come to the airport in hospital gowns, flapping open in the back. . . .

In his detached way, Spock was letting us know that our besieged starship was not speeding into a safer new future, and that we still have to be scared. Heck of a job, Barry.

Add the Yule-Day terror attack to other recent problems (the blowback on a jobless economy, health care, Afghanistan and Iran, plummeting poll numbers, etc.), and it’s clear the President needs to change the dynamic with a bold and clever move. Surprisingly and counterintuitively, executive action on immigration could be like a knight moved to the middle of the chess board that changes entirely the terms of engagement.

On Patt Morrison’s Southern California Public Radio show yesterday, I debated Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that opposes a path to legal status for the undocumented and supports “attrition through enforcement“. As the debate on immigration enforcement versus legalization came to a close, I suggested, as I’ve blogged on the point before and others have proposed, that President Obama use his executive authority to grant the undocumented work permits. To my surprise, Krikorian agreed that the President has the authority to issue work permits (but that if he did so, Krikorian predicted that it would increase the pressure to impeach him).

With clear democratic majorities in both houses, a Presidential grant of work permits to the undocumented for a principled reason would not likely be found to satisfy the “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” standard for impeachment. That principled reason would be to require the 12 million undocumented among us to come forward, and submit to comprehensive security screenings in return for deferred action on deportation and the right to work. Couple the directive with a Presidential finding that, to protect the homeland, our nation must identify and screen as many of the undocumented as possible.

The screening would produce several immediate benefits:

  1. It would generate a wealth of information for the law enforcement and intelligence communities to use to connect more of the dots;
  2. It would make it easier and more cost-effective to identify and remove registrants and non-registrants who pose serious threats to the common weal;
  3. It would temporarily take the heat off immigration supporters in Congress who fear the repercussions of a “yes” vote as 2010 mid-term elections draw near;
  4. It would (partially) make good on pre-election pledges to the Hispanic community to support immigration reform despite a tough-sell in a bad economy;
  5. It would cause us to stop spending unaffordable sums that add to the bankrupting of future generations for enforcement measures directed against hard-working, taxpaying and contributing members of our communities (as the Migration Policy Institute reported this month); and
  6. It would change the facts on the ground by bringing millions of good people out of the shadows, put a human face on people heretofore demonized as faceless law violators and thus make it easier to pass comprehensive immigration reform after the November elections.

Yes, a presidential grant of the right to work and deferred action on deportation, in return for registration and full security screening, would be an audacious game-changer for the harbinger of hope. It would also make us more secure at a time when our jittery nerves could use a large dose of safety and the balm of reassurance that we are at last headed in the right direction.