WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. as children, a move that President Obama said would "mend" immigration policy and which is likely to push the battle for Latino voters to the forefront of the presidential campaign.
The Friday morning announcement was touted by the president and his allies as a major step toward a more humane deportation policy. Immigration activists have long pressured the White House to act to protect young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally by their parents and have been forced to live in the shadows or face deportation.
Obama, who has been looking for ways to energize his electoral base, announced the decision in the Rose Garden, seizing the news cycle on a slow Friday afternoon a week before he is slated to address a group of Latino officials in Orlando, Fla.
“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 in remarks that were frequently interrupted by a reporter’s shouted questions.
Some Republicans quickly attacked the move as an election-year political ploy that circumvented the legislative process. Congress repeatedly has rejected the Dream Act, legislation that would have given such immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship. Some Republican lawmakers questioned the constitutionality of the move.
Other Republicans, including much of the congressional leadership, however, were silent as they weighed the political outcomes – an indication of the political difficulty of the issue.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, waited hours before making a statement, eventually telling reporters that “we have to find a long-term solution” to the country’s immigration problems “but the president’s action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult.”
Under the new policy, effective immediately, immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally before they turned 16 and are under the age of 30 will be allowed to apply for work permits as long as they have no criminal history and meet other criteria, administration officials said.
Those who meet the criteria will be eligible to apply for deferred action on deportation for a period of two years, and that status will be renewable, one official said. They also will be able to apply for authorization to work.
Individuals have to meet numerous requirements to be eligible to apply. They must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16 and must have resided in the U.S. continuously for at least five years. They must be present in the U.S. now, be enrolled in school, and hold a high school diploma or GED or serve in the U.S. military. Veterans who have been discharged honorably also will be eligible.
Disqualified from application would be felons, immigrants convicted of violent crimes, and repeat offenders of immigration law. Also ineligible would be those convicted of a significant misdemeanor offense or more than one misdemeanor, or those who for some other reason pose a security or safety threat.
Obama acknowledged the decision was a temporary measure.
“This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship,” Obama said. “It's not a permanent fix.”
“We don’t consider this a permanent solution for anyone,” a senior administration official said earlier Friday on a call with reporters. “Some future administration can make its own decision on how to treat this decision."
Romney is facing his own pressure over how to handle immigration issues. In recent years, the base of his party has turned decidedly against policies viewed as lenient and Romney struck that pose during his bid for his party’s nomination.
But some within the GOP argue that the shift and the hard-line rhetoric threaten to alienate a generation of Latino voters, the fastest growing demographic in the electorate.
Among those making that case is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio, who is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate, criticized Obama’s decision as a Band-Aid that won’t mend the problem.
“There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own, but there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future,” the Florida senator said in a statement. “This is a difficult balance to strike, one that this new policy, imposed by executive order, will make harder to achieve in the long run.
“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long-term problem,” he added. “And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one.”
Others took a harder tone.
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