WASHINGTON - President Obama, bypassing Congress on a deeply divisive issue, has moved to ease the threat of deportation for a generation of young illegal immigrants brought to this country as children, offering many a chance at legal status and renewable work permits, but not a path to citizenship.
Under the sweeping new policy announced Friday, more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who have obtained a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate or served in the military can apply for a “deferred action’’ status that eliminates the threat of deportation for two years. Applicants must have no criminal record.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans, they’ve been raised as Americans, 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 White House Rose Garden on Friday afternoon.
“Let’s be clear,’’ Obama continued. “This is not amnesty. 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.’’
The new immigrant policy, as an exercise of executive discretion, is vulnerable to being reversed by a future president and is sure to be a source of controversy in a presidential campaign widely seen as hinging on the vote in a number of swing states where the Latino constituency is large. It also comes just before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Arizona’s controversial 2010 law, which requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop.
Republicans immediately pounced Friday, accusing the president of making an end run around Congress and of making an obvious political move to bolster his popularity among Latinos, a key Democratic constituency that has expressed disappointment over Obama’s failure to fulfill his campaign promise of immigration reform.
In a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center poll, most Latinos - by a margin of 59 percent to 27 percent - opposed the deportation policies of the Obama administration, which has annually expelled a higher number of undocumented immigrants than the Bush administration did.
Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who launched a six-state bus tour in New Hampshire on Friday, has been trying to appeal to Hispanic voters by softening the blunt rhetoric he adopted during the Republican primary. On Friday, he offered a relatively mild response to Obama’s announcement, saying the unilateral executive action could make it more difficult to pass legislation that address the needs of young illegal immigrants in a more permanent way. But Romney did not say whether he would reverse the new Obama policy if he is elected.
“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,’’ Romney said.
Romney is planning to give a major address next Thursday before a group of Latino officials in Orlando, Fla., where he may further detail his position on immigration and attempt to draw a strong contrast with Obama, who speaks to the group the following day.
During the GOP primary race Romney was among the most adamant about cracking down on illegal immigration, saying those in the country illegally should go through “self-deportation’’ and remove themselves from the country. He criticized one-time rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for policies seen as friendly to immigrants, and he said he would veto the so-called Dream Act, which, should it win congressional approval, would give certain young illegal immigrants a path towards citizenship.
Obama has a dominant lead over Romney among Latinos, 61 percent to 27 percent, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released earlier this month. Romney advisers concede they won’t be able to win the Hispanic vote but have a goal of reaching nearly 40 percent.
Obama’s new policy, outlined in a memo by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, applies to illegal immigrants under 30 years old who arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and who have lived in the country for at least the last five years. Napolitano said the changes - which are not an executive order but merely the exercise of enforcement discretion by the Department of Homeland Security - were necessary because young illegal immigrants without criminal records are not the people the immigration removal process was designed to focus on. Expending resources on such deportations, she said, conflicts with the economic needs of the country.
Republicans, however, are raising legal questions, accusing the president of overstepping his constitutional authority. But several immigration attorneys and constitutional scholars said Obama is operating within his authority.
“There is no question that the administration has the inherent power to execute prosecutorial discretion,’’ said Daniel Kanstroom, a professor of immigration and human rights law at Boston College. “They’re not granting legal status, just putting immigration status on hold pending a legislative fix.’’
Obama said Friday that because the reprieve is temporary, Congress needs to pass the Dream Act, which Democrats, college presidents, and business leaders have been pushing for years. The Dream Act would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants 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 to graduate from high school or obtain a GED, and complete two years in college or serve in the military.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican and Tea Party favorite, has repeatedly spoken out against amnesty for illegal immigrants and has proposed building a concrete wall along the Mexico border. On Friday he criticized Obama for, in his view, violating the Constitution, given that Congress 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. He is considering a lawsuit to block the change.
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 Friday 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.
“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,’’ Rubio said.
The move was hailed by immigrant rights advocates, who 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.’’
Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, also praised the new policy. “Republicans have blocked every effort at immigration reform for six years,’’ Kerry said. “You can’t hold kids hostage to Washington’s failure to do what Ronald Reagan and every president has always done, which is reform the system and make our laws work.’’
Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican running for reelection, said he opposes the change, suggesting it would set off a new wave of illegal immigration. He said he would be open to allowing young people who have chosen military service to obtain citizenship in recognition of their sacrifice. “Rather than sidestepping Congress on this major policy shift, the president should work with us toward a bipartisan, long-term solution,’’ Brown said.
Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat challenging Brown, criticized him for not supporting the Dream Act. “Two years ago, Scott Brown denied the dreams of these young people,’’ she said. “His vote to kill the Dream Act cost our communities and our country, until the president took action today.’’
While other Republicans criticized Obama’s move Friday, immigration reform got an unwitting endorsement from an unlikely source. Haley Barbour, a top Republican and former governor of Mississippi, argued hours before the news broke 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 factory workers 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.