Washington, DC (June 16, 2012) — President Barack Obama eased enforcement of immigration laws Friday, offering a chance for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work.
Immediately embraced by Hispanics, the extraordinary step touched off an election-year confrontation with congressional Republicans. “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 said from the White House Rose Garden. “This is the right thing to do.”
The policy change will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the “DREAM Act,” congressional legislation that would establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or join the military.
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military. They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.
Obama said the change would become effective immediately to “lift the shadow of deportation from these young people.”
The step, to be carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, comes one week before Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ annual conference in Orlando, FL. Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is to speak to the group on Thursday.
“Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a memorandum describing the administration’s action. “Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”
The policy closely tracks a proposal being drafted by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential vice presidential running mate for Romney, as an alternative to the DREAM Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.
In a statement the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) while supporting the President’s actions, says: “To be clear, this is not legalization. This policy will provide temporary relief from deportation for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. Sadly, many will miss this opportunity; younger siblings and parents can still be deported.”
This will not end the record-level deportations – over 400,000 people a year — by the Obama Administration. The president even reaffirmed his commitment to immigration enforcement, including having “more boots on the ground” at the U.S.-Mexico border than any other administration.
Numerous enforcement initiatives continue to identify, detain and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. While the Administration repeats that it is only seeking out the “most dangerous criminal” immigrants, we know that people who are caught driving without a driver’s license are being deported, as is an immigrant parent who has re-crossed the border in order to reunite with children here in the U.S.
Last August the Administration had announced in another enforcement reform that it would use “prosecutorial discretion” to provide an opportunity for “low priority” immigrants with deportation orders to have their cases reviewed and deportations deferred. Since then, less than two percent of the reviewed cases have been closed, and community members continue to be detained and deported, raising concern about the promise of today’s announcement and the actual implementation.
Under this process, young undocumented immigrants must apply for eligibility, including submission of fingerprints. The deferred action from deportation, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis, lasts for two years, when it will expire and a renewal request may be made. Those granted the deferral may apply for work authorization, to be granted “based on economic necessity for employment.” Given the punitive enforcement environment, there will certainly be well-founded fears about coming forward to request deferred action, and there will be a need for widespread community education about this policy. It will also require vigilant monitoring as it goes into effect to ensure that it is done fairly.
As significant as this development may be, the need to provide formal relief from deportation — and the opportunity to legalize status — remains for over 10 million other undocumented people in this country. This deferral from deportation is not legislated, and as such, can be taken away by administrative action. Immigrant workers, families, communities will not be safe and economically viable without legislated immigration reforms that provide fair avenues for legal status and which will remove the punitive enforcement programs that continue to traumatize communities and separate families.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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