The Obama administration said Friday it will stop deporting most illegal immigrant students and young adults in a campaign-year move that escalates the immigration debate to the fore.
For years the administration had said it didn’t have the authority to make such a move, saying it couldn’t decide to stop deporting wide categories of people on its own without approval from Congress.
But on Friday President Obama says administration now interprets the law to give it the discretion.
“Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people,” Mr. Obama said in an appearance in the White House Rose Garden. “Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”
Mr. Obama said the action was meant to be a temporary fix for our “broken immigration system” and urged Congress to pass a more permanent solution such as the DREAM Act.
“This is not amnesty,” Mr. Obama said. “This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely, while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the right thing to do.”
Mr. Obama angrily shot down a reporter for the conservative Daily Caller who interrupted his remarks with the question, “Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?”
Later in the remarks, the president seemed to address the reporter: “In answer to your question, this is the right thing to do for the American people.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she would institute the law with discretion.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” she said in a statement announcing the move. “But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”
Her move grants “deferred action” — meaning the department will no longer pursue deportations for those who qualify.
The decision is an effort to go around Congress, which has repeatedly failed to pass a bill granting legal status to this category of illegal immigrants. That type of legislation is usually called the Dream Act, though details vary depending on the version.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said the new amnesty will become “a magnet for fraud,” and will end up letting jobs go to current illegal immigrants.
“How can the Administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed?” Mr. Smith said. “President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people.”
But Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has been among the most vociferous supporters of legalization, called the decision “an historic humanitarian moment.”
“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,” he said.
Indeed, illegal immigrant youths have long been the toughest cases in the illegal immigration debate. Often they were brought to the U.S. as children and in some cases babies or toddlers, and have no knowledge of the countries where they were born.
In her statement Ms. Napolitano said her department will stop deporting those illegal immigrants who are under 30 years of age, have graduated from high school, gotten an equivalency diploma or joined the U.S. military and don’t have a felony or major misdemeanor on their record.
The exact number of people who would qualify is unclear, though the Migration Policy Institute has calculated that at least one version of the Dream Act introduced in Congress could have granted status to 2.1 million people.
That’s also a lower bar than some in Congress had envisioned for granting legal status to illegal immigrants.
Ms. Napolitano’s decision doesn’t automatically put these illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, which is what immigrant-rights advocates call for. But it does grant them temporary leave to remain in the U.S.
Mr. Obama has been under pressure for years to take this step, but he had repeatedly said he didn’t have the authority.
“The fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce. And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the Dream Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true,” Mr. Obama said last year.
And Ms. Napolitano last year specifically rejected the kind of categorical move she made on Friday, telling senators she only had the authority to examine cases individually.
Friday’s move comes just a week before Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak at a major gathering of Hispanic-rights activists in Florida — the beginning of a summer series of conferences among different Hispanic groups.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would veto the Dream Act. He said he only favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant young adults who join the military.
Hours after the Obama announcement, Mr. Romney said the move could make it harder to find a long-term fix.
“I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered, and should be solved on a long term basis so they know what their future would be in this country,” he said in New Hampshire to reporters. He walked away when asked whether he would reverse the executive order if elected president.
The Dream Act last came before Congress in 2010 when it was defeated on a bipartisan filibuster.
Democrats have introduced their own legislation again this year, and called for the GOP to work with them on it.
Sen. Marco Rubio a Cuban-American and rising star in the Republican Party, is working on his own version of a Dream Act.
And Rep. David Rivera, Florida Republican, introduced a version several weeks ago that would grant a multi-tier path to citizenship to a much narrower category than the administration. His legislation would apply only to students who have graduated high school and are attending a four-year college, and they would only earn a path to citizenship if they earned a degree from the college.
• Susan Crabtree and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.