(Reuters) – About 800,000 young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children could be spared deportation under new immigration rules announced by the Obama administration on Friday that may appeal to Hispanic voters in an election year.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that illegal immigrants up to 30 years old who came to the United States as children and do not pose a risk to national security would be eligible to stay in the country and allowed to apply for work permits.
The policy was announced a week before President Barack Obama, seeking re-election on November 6, is due to speak to a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also is set to address the group next week.
While public opinion polls show Obama receiving overwhelming support from Hispanic voters, his relations with the fastest growing U.S. minority group have been strained because of his administration’s aggressive deportation of illegal immigrants.
There are an estimated 1 million to 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the country as children living in the United States, according to immigration group estimates.
U.S. officials said the new measures would affect roughly 800,000 people.
Democrats in Congress hailed the Obama administration’s decision, but said there still was a need to enact legislation to permanently protect these immigrants.
“We need a law,” Senator Richard Durbin said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “But until we create this law this is an historic humanitarian moment.”
“Effective immediately, young people who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own as children and who meet several key criteria will no longer be removed from the country or entered into removal proceedings,” Napolitano told reporters on a conference call.
“This grant of a deferred action is not immunity, it is not amnesty,” she said. “It will help us continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low priority cases involving productive young people.”
To be eligible for the new enforcement rules, a person must have come to the United States under 16 years old and have resided in the country for at least five years. They must be in school or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They must also be free of convictions of felony or significant misdemeanor offenses.
A top Republican in Congress criticized the new policy. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith called Obama’s decision a “breach of faith” that he said will have “horrible consequences” for unemployed Americans looking for jobs.
Some Republicans accused Obama of exceeding his authority, but they did not specifically say they would file lawsuits.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is the author of legislation allowing this group of immigrants to attend college in the United States and serve in the military, while also providing them a path to citizenship. Durbin said he would like to try passing his bill this year, but that he needed Republican help to overcome procedural roadblocks.
HOT POLITICAL ISSUE
Most of the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanics. Immigration is a big issue for Hispanics, an important voting bloc in the United States that could help determine who wins the election between Obama, a Democrat, and Romney, who like many other Republicans has taken a hard line on illegal immigration.
Early this year, during the Republican presidential primary campaign season, Romney said he favored “self-deportation” in which illegal immigrants would realize they would be better off returning to their native countries because they cannot find jobs in the United States.
In an attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters, however, Romney has argued that his plans to help revive the U.S. economy would translate into gains for this minority group.
Obama supports immigration reform but has been unable to gain bipartisan support in Congress for a law that would address the issue.
Legislation known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act passed the House of Representatives in 2010, but fell a handful of votes short in the Senate.
A more limited version of the Democratic legislation is being developed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is keeping the Romney campaign informed, according to congressional aides. Rubio has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Romney.
Napolitano said the administration’s new stance was meant to create a more efficient and productive immigration policy.
The Obama administration’s move came after a long push by immigration advocacy groups for action and after numerous attempts to pass legislation sputtered in the deeply divided Congress. Those groups would still like to see Congress move on legislation that has a more permanent impact.
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, said the administration’s decision “throws ‘Dreamers’ a life line” until a long-term policy can be worked out for this group of people living in the United States.
Republican lawmaker Smith, however, said, “President Obama’s amnesty only benefits illegal immigrants, not Americans, and is a magnet for fraud. Many illegal immigrants will falsely claim they came here as children and the federal government has no way to check whether their claims are true.”
“And once these illegal immigrants are granted deferred action, they can then apply for a work permit, which the administration routinely grants 90 percent of the time,” added Smith, whose panel oversees immigration legislation and he has been on record opposing limited measures introduced in Congress.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to Arizona’s immigration laws targeting people living and working in the state illegally, with a ruling expected as early as next week.
Supporters of the Arizona crackdown, which has been replicated in other states, say it was needed because Obama has failed to secure the border with Mexico. Critics say it could lead to ethnic and racial profiling of Hispanics, and government lawyers argue it interferes with federal powers on immigration.