The Obama administration is easing its policy of deporting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and have led law-abiding lives.
The election-year initiative addresses a top priority of an influential Latino electorate that has been vocal in its opposition to administration immigration policies, particularly last year's record number of deportations.
President Obama gave a hint of what was to come Thursday during a campaign speech on the economy in Cleveland.
"If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity from all over the world, we won't deport hardworking, responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here," he said. "We'll let them earn the chance to become American citizens, so they can grow our economy and start new businesses right here instead of someplace else."
A Pew Hispanic Center poll released in December found that Latinos disapproved of the administration's deportation policy, 59%-27%. Latinos voted by 67%-31% for Obama in 2008 but have shown signs of diminished enthusiasm this year. Their unemployment rate is 11%, far above the nation's 8.2% rate.
Obama was to address the new policy from the White House Friday afternoon. It has been a priority for congressional Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano outlined the policy Friday morning.
The policy will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, which would establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who have attended college or served in the military.
Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando, Florida, next week. Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is scheduled to speak to the group on Thursday.
Under the 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. The policy will not lead toward citizenship, but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods.
"Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways," Napolitano wrote in a memorandum describing the administration's action. "Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner," she said. "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."
Opponents in Congress called it amnesty.
"President Obama's decision to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants is a breach of faith with the American people," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "It also blatantly ignores the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy. This huge policy shift has horrible consequences for unemployed Americans looking for jobs and also violates President Obama's oath to uphold the laws of this land.
"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% of the time.
"How can the administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed? President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people. With this track record, it's looking more likely that even President Obama may lose his job in this economy when Americans go to the polls this November."
Napolitano disputed the amnesty charge.
"This ... is not immunity. This is not amnesty," she said. "It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not placed in removal proceedings. We are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. With respect to these young people, deferred action is simply the right thing to do."
Supporters in Congress said the policy is just a start toward improving the nation's immigration laws.
"This could protect 800,000 or more young immigrants with roots here right now, and will be seen in the immigrant and Latino community as a very significant down payment on broader reform," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. "It is a tremendous first step towards addressing the problems caused by our outdated and inflexible immigration.
"It also sets the ball in motion to break the gridlock and fix our laws so that people who live here can do so legally and on the books, and people can come with visas instead of smugglers in the first place. Today, the students are being protected, but we have to fix the system for their families and for the country once and for all."
People eligible for the DREAM Act -- referred to as DREAMers -- expressed cautious relief over the announcement.
Mohammad Abdollahi, 26, was occupying an Obama reelection office in Dearborn, Mich., on Friday with three other DREAMers when he heard the news. Abdollahi, whose family brought him to the U.S. from Iran when he was 3 and has since overstayed his visa, said other DREAMers were occupying Organizing for America offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ohio.
He said Napolitano's announcement was not enough for them to leave. It was about a year ago when the administration announced that it would review all pending deportation cases and drop cases that did not match their priorities of deporting dangerous criminals and repeat border crossers. But that process has been moving slowly, and Abdollahi said he wants to see actual cases dropped against his fellow DREAMers before he is happy.
"We want to be excited, but at the same time, we're being realistic," said Abdollahi.
He said the timing of the move is undoubtedly tied to the November election.
"We completely know that both sides are vying for the Latino vote," he said. "We know everyone's trying to use the community. But if you're going to use the community, at least give us something legitimate. You can't just use us and not give us anything."
A release from the Department of Homeland Security is below.
SECRETARY NAPOLITANO ANNOUNCES DEFERRED ACTION PROCESS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE LOW ENFORCEMENT PRIORITIES
WASHINGTON- Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano today announced that effective immediately, certain young people who were brought to the United States as young children, do not present a risk to national security or public safety, and meet several key criteria will be considered for relief from removal from the country or from entering into removal proceedings. Those who demonstrate that they meet the criteria will be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and will be eligible to apply for work authorization.
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner," said Secretary Napolitano. "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."
DHS continues to focus its enforcement resources on the removal of individuals who pose a national security or public safety risk, including immigrants convicted of crimes, violent criminals, felons, and repeat immigration law offenders. Today's action further enhances the Department's ability to focus on these priority removals.
Under this directive, individuals who demonstrate that they meet the following criteria will be eligible for an exercise of discretion, specifically deferred action, on a case-by-case basis:
1.) Came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
2.) Have continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and are present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;
3.) Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
4.) Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety;
5.) Are not above the age of thirty.
Only those individuals who can prove through verifiable documentation that they meet these criteria will be eligible for deferred action. Individuals will not be eligible if they are not currently in the United States and cannot prove that they have been physically present in the United States for a period of not less than 5 years immediately preceding today's date. Deferred action requests are decided on a case-by-case basis. DHS cannot provide any assurance that all such requests will be granted. The use of prosecutorial discretion confers no substantive right, immigration status, or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.
While this guidance takes effect immediately, USCIS and ICE expect to begin implementation of the application processes within sixty days. In the meantime, individuals seeking more information on the new policy should visit USCIS's website (at www.uscis.gov), ICE's website (at www.ice.gov), or DHS's website (at www.dhs.gov). Beginning Monday, individuals can also call USCIS' hotline at 1-800-375-5283 or ICE's hotline at 1-888-351-4024 during business hours with questions or to request more information on the forthcoming process.
For individuals who are in removal proceedings and have already been identified as meeting the eligibility criteria and have been offered an exercise of discretion as part of ICE's ongoing case-by-case review, ICE will immediately begin to offer them deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal.