WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama suddenly eased enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws Friday, an extraordinary step offering a chance for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work.
Embraced by Hispanics, his action touched off an election-year confrontation with many Republicans.
Mitt Romney, Obama’s GOP election foe, criticized the step but did not say he would try to overturn it if elected.
Obama said the change would become effective immediately to “lift the shadow of deportation from these young people.”
“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.”
In New Mexico, immigrants’ rights activists were elated. Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, called it a “huge win and historic moment.”
“We applaud the president’s courageous decision to provide relief to so many young people in our community,” she said.
New Mexico as a matter of policy has made college educations affordable for young immigrants; now that investment will pay off, she said.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement that while she agreed there should be a “thoughtful approach” toward children brought here by parents, the best way to deal with the issue is comprehensive reform and border security.
“The president promised comprehensive immigration reform, and this is just a short-term fix in an election year,” Martinez said.
The Obama administration said the change will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It bypasses Congress and partly achieves the goals of the “Dream Act,” legislation that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military.
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be able to avoid deportation if they can prove 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.
The move comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida. While Obama enjoys support from a majority of Hispanic voters over Republican challenger Romney, Latino enthusiasm for the president has been tempered by the slow economic recovery, his inaction on a broad overhaul of immigration laws and by his administration’s aggressive deportation policy.
Some Republicans in Congress – and the governor of Arizona, whose state has been at the center of enforcement controversy – strongly criticized the Obama action. But the response from Romney was more muted.
Romney said Obama’s decision will make finding a long-term solution to the nation’s immigration issues more difficult. But he also said the plight of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children is “an important matter to be considered.”
During the Republican presidential primaries, Romney said he would veto the Dream Act, with its pathway to citizenship.
New Mexico Republican Rep. Steve Pearce – who called it an “amnesty announcement” – said Obama was legislating from the White House, circumventing congressional authority “to score political points with his liberal base.”
“I am appalled that Mr. Obama once again believes he is above our Constitution,” Pearce said in a statement.
The state’s two Democratic House members, Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, were supportive of the policy change but said Congress must go further and enact the Dream Act.
“Dream Act students represent much of what’s best about our nation: hard work, motivation and a willingness to serve this country,” Heinrich said.
Republican former Rep. Heather Wilson, who is running against Heinrich for U.S. Senate, said the children brought to this country are owed a long-term solution.
“Unfortunately, the decision today is temporary and leaves many questions unanswered. Because of that uncertainty, I think it is unlikely that many young people will apply for this program,” she said.
The change in enforcement policy, 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, Fla. Romney is to speak to the group on Thursday.
Making his case on humanitarian grounds, Obama said, “These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
The Obama administration’s deportation policies have come under fire, and Latino leaders have raised the subject in private meetings with the president. In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is expected to deport about 400,000 this year.
A December poll by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of the president’s handling of deportations.
The administration announcement comes ahead of an expected Supreme Court decision on Arizona’s tough 2010 immigration law that, among other things, requires police to ask for immigration papers from anyone they stop or arrest and suspect is in the country illegally. The Obama administration has challenged the law.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal