Obama administration to stop deporting undocumented youth
The announcement could energize Obama’s Latino supporters, but Republicans called it an overreach.
The Obama administration announced Friday it will use executive authority to halt deportations and grant work permits for certain younger undocumented immigrants.
Obama’s sweeping announcement comes in the midst of a tough reelection battle with Republican Mitt Romney in which Latino voters could play a decisive role in key swing states. Latino activists have expressed disappointment in the administration’s deportation policies and have long demanded that Obama take executive action to stop deportations of undocumented youth.
“This is the right thing to do for the American people,” Obama said in a Rose Garden Statement. “Let’s be clear, this is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix.
Obama, however, said that the policy would “lift the shadow of deportation for these young people.”
The decision, according to the Department of Homeland Security, could affect as many as 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and are younger than 30. But the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that number could be as high as 1.4 million.
In order to be granted a deferred action, they must prove to government authorities they have no criminal record, have graduated from high school or earned a GED, or have military service, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
Immigrants must also have resided in the U.S. for five consecutive years to be eligible and could also apply for work permits.
The policy change would impact individuals who qualify for relief under the DREAM Act, a long-stalled piece of immigration reform legislation, without going through Congress.
President Obama has long insisted he did not have the executive authority to make such a wide-ranging policy move.
“Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you. Not just on immigration reform,” Obama said at the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference last year. “But … that’s not how our system works.”
Senior administration officials asserted that their new decision does not belie their previous statements, saying the move is the next step of an “exercise of prosecutorial discretion” under existing immigration policy.
Immigrant activists, who have prodded the administration for months to act, applauded the announcement as long overdue. Rallies were organized in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. to cheer the president’s move.
“This is smart government action. We applaud the Obama administration for taking steps to allow young people, American in every way except immigration status, to remain in our country,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
The political timing of the announcement was conspicuous for Obama. His administration made its new effort public just one week before the president will speak at the annual conference of the National Conference of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, Fla. Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican opponent, will speak there just one day before the president.
Obama remains popular among Latinos, one of his key base constituencies. He led Romney 61-27 percent among Latino voters according to a May NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll.
But the president appeared to be in danger of seeing disappointing Latino turnout out of a lack of enthusiasm, which could have hurt his chances of winning important swing states like Nevada and Colorado.
Sixty-eight percent Latinos in the NBC poll said they were highly interested in the November election, compared to 81 percent of all voters.
“It is definitely the case there was an enthusiasm gap here between Latinos and the Democratic Party,” said Matt Barreto, a principal with Latino Decisions, a polling firm that specialized in studying Latino voters.
Obama’s move could energize Latinos voters since it addresses the issue where he was most vulnerable. Fifty-nine percent of Latino adults disapproved of Obama’s deportation policies, which have contributed to record-high number of deportations, according to a December Pew Hispanic Center poll.
Barreto said that the announcement could give him a boost with younger Latino voters and immigrant voters, both of whom are closely attuned to the issue.
“I’m sure this is going to be featured in Nevada and North Carolina and elsewhere. He is going to be delivering very powerful campaign speeches saying that he did this,” he said. “There could be some states where this single-handedly provides a turnout bump to Obama among younger voters and immigrant voters.”
During his primary campaign, Romney pledged to veto the current version of the DREAM Act, a move that appeared to hurt his standing with Latino voters. But in April, Romney broached the idea of a “Republican DREAM Act” to help win them back.
Barreto said that it would be politically wise for Romney to come out with an affirmative set of policies on how he would handle immigration.
“What’s the Republican response: are they going to figure something out or continue to dig their heels in turn away more Latinos?” Barreto asked. “If Romney goes silent on this, I don’t know that he wants to do that. It would remind me of how Democrats handled the healthcare issue.”
But Obama’s proposal may have stolen the thunder from the GOP’s best hope at doing just that: Sen. Marco Rubio’s alternative DREAM Act. The Obama administration action closely resembles Rubio’s yet-to-be-released proposal, which would offer temporary nonimmigrant visas for certain young undocumented immigrants.
The White House in the past appeared dismissive of Rubio’s proposal, expressing skepticism it could pass through Congress.
Rubio was not consulted on the White House’s decision and his legislation remains a “work in progress,” according to his office. Rubio refrained from criticizing the purpose of Obama’s order, but rapped the president for circumventing Congress.
“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer,” Rubio said in a statement. “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.”
Other Republicans and conservatives went farther, calling the decision to bypass Congress a politically-motivated overreach designed to appeal to Latino voters.
This is a classic Barack Obama move of choosing politics over leadership.— Lindsey Graham (@GrahamBlog) June 15, 2012
President Obama’s attempt to go around Congress and the American people is at best unwise and possibly illegal.— Lindsey Graham (@GrahamBlog) June 15, 2012
“Today in an unconstitutional move, President Obama thwarted the will of Congress and shunned the 20 million under and unemployed Americans,” said Roy Beck, president of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA. “Congress on three occasions rejected the DREAM Act amnesties in part to help unemployed workers born here or who came here legally.”
But Obama’s new order does not go as far as the current framework of the DREAM Act.
“It is not immunity, it is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion,” Napolitano told reporters on a conference call.
Under the administration’s new policy, eligible immigrants would be granted a two-year deferred action on a case-by-case basis, after which they would have to reapply for lawful status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Immigrants affected by the policy could pursue work permits, but they are not guaranteed, and must be applied for through a separate process.
Those who have deportation cases before court could apply for relief from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but that process won’t be up and running for another 60 days, officials said.
The temporary nature of deferred action could leave some undocumented youth hanging in the balance should Romney defeat Obama in November, since the former Massachusetts governor could theoretically roll back the policy.
Administration officials acknowledged the limits of its new effort and said that Congress would need to act to confer permanent legal status on undocumented youth.
“The use of prosecutorial discretion confers no substantive right, immigration status, or pathway to citizenship,” Napolitano said in a statement. “Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.”
Activists said that they would still push for broader immigration reform in Congress, but expressed relief over Obama’s decision.
“This is a great step in immigration reform,” Gaby Pacheco, a prominent DREAM Act activist, said in a Spanish-language interview with Univision. “We are very happy for this progress after all the struggle and risks. But this is not the end of it, the fight continues until we achieve a more permanent measure.”