WASHINGTON – President Obama is bypassing Congress and plans to immediately stop certain deportations and instead grant work permits to as many as 800,000 younger illegal immigrants, according to a policy shift unveiled by the White House on Friday.
Under the new policy, illegal immigrants under 30 years old without a criminal record, who arrived in the United States before they turned 16, and who have lived in the country for at least the last five years can apply for a “deferred action” that for two years eliminates the threat of deportation, without granting citizenship. They must have either obtained a high school diploma or GED, or be serving in the military or honorably discharged.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are Americans, who’ve been raised as Americans, who understand themselves to be part of this country… simply because of the actions of their parents, or because of the inactions of politicians,” Obama said from the Rose Garden Friday afternoon.
“Let’s be clear,” Obama continued. “This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix. It’s a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely.”
The president also urged Congress to pass the so-called DREAM Act, which does include a path to citizenship and which Democrats, college presidents, and business leaders have been pushing for years.
Congressman Steve King of Iowa, a Tea Party darling who has repeatedly spoken out against amnesty for illegal immigrants and has proposed building a concrete wall along the Mexico border, criticized Obama for violating the Constitution, given that Congress already rejected the DREAM Act in 2010.
“President Obama, an ex-constitutional law professor, whose favorite word is audacity, is prepared to violate the principles of Constitutional law that he taught,” said King, vice-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration. “The American people have rejected amnesty because it will erode the rule of law. In much the same way, I believe the American people will reject President Obama for his repeated efforts to violate the constitutional separation of powers.”
The DREAM Act would have created a path to legal residency for undocumented youth under 35 years old who arrived in this country before they turned 16, lived here for five straight years, and do not have a criminal record. They would have had to graduate from high school or obtained a GED, and complete two years in college or serve in the military.
Obama’s announcement raises the prominence of a hot button issue into the presidential campaign that affects a growing portion of the electorate in key swing states.
Mitt Romney took a hard line stance on illegal immigration during the Republican primary race and has since been trying to make inroads with the Hispanic voters who make up a growing share of the electorate.
Romney has been planning on using a speech next Thursday, before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, as a prominent venue to discuss anew his approach to immigration. President Obama is addressing the same group the following day.
Romney gave a speech this morning in New Hampshire as he launched a six-state bus tour, but he did not mention immigration. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Obama’s policy.
Obama is moving to make the policy change by bypassing Congress but it could be overturned by a future administration.
The new policy follows a bid by Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and potential vice presidential candidate, to craft a plan that would also allow work permits for certain immigrants.
Rubio said that while the announcement “will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer,” the way in which Obama is implementing it will make it more difficult to achieve a broader compromise.
“It is a short term answer to a long term problem,” he said. “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.”
Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who sponsored the DREAM Act, called Obama’s decision “an historic humanitarian moment.”
“This action will give these young immigrants their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they’ve ever called home,” Durbin said. “These young people did not make the decision to come to this country, and it is not the American way to punish children for their parents’ actions.”
The move was also hailed by immigrant rights advocates, who still called for a more permanent change from Congress.
“To be clear, a permanent solution must be found that allows these young people to become full citizens,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council. “But until Congress acts, the deferred action program offers the breathing room needed to ensure that no more young lives are jeopardized through senseless deportations.”
While some Republicans criticized the move Friday, the plan got an unwitting endorsement on Friday morning from an unlikely source. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top Republican, argued hours before the news broke on Friday morning that the immigration system needed to be fixed.
Many illegal immigrants, he said, are hard workers and are doing the jobs that most American citizens aren’t eager to do, using the example of poultry factories in the South. If all of those immigrants were deported, he said, those jobs would not be filled.
“There are many states with many, many Spanish-speaking people who came here illegally who have good jobs, who worked hard, who’ve got families, who paid taxes, and never committed a crime,” Barbour said during a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Rick Perry said during the campaign, I think very thoughtfully, somebody who’s got that kind of record here, tell them, ‘You can stay, here’s a two-year work permit.’ ”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.