With the DREAM Act stalled in the House and Senate, President Barack Obama on Friday announced plans to spare young undocumented immigrants from deportation in a move that could allow 800,000 students to stay in the country and seek employment.
“This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix,” Obama said at a White House briefing. Calling it a way to help students dubbed as “Dreamers,” the president described it as a stopgap measure “giving a degree of relief and hope to talented driven, patriotic young people.”
Under the policy, young people brought to the U.S. before age 16 could receive a two-year deferral from deportation with the possibility to renew that status.
Individuals also must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, have no criminal convictions, and have graduated high school, received an honorable military discharge, or currently be attending school.
The announcement bears similarities to the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway for citizenship to undocumented students of good character who have completed at least two years of post-secondary education. Yet while the bill passed the House of Representatives previously when that chamber was under Democratic control, it failed to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Action on the bill also has ground to a halt in the current Congress.
Unlike the DREAM Act, however, the president’s latest announcement would not provide a way to citizenship—though it could help undocumented young people gain employment.
Still, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate sponsor of the DREAM Act, said the Obama announcement would give young immigrants “their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they’ve ever called home.”
Durbin contended that the move would help thousands of undocumented students hoping for DREAM Act passage.
“The Obama administration’s decision to extend temporary legal status to DREAM Act students is an historic humanitarian moment,” he said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan also praised the move, saying it will “help ensure that thousands of talented and productive young people will more fully contribute to our nation.”
But Republicans criticized the action. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called it “a breach of faith” with the American people.
“How can the administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed?” he asked.
Smith also said the policy would be tough to enforce, questioning if the federal government can verify that a young adult came to the U.S. as a child.
Critics of the DREAM Act outside Capitol Hill also opposed the move.
“Five months before the presidential election, the Obama administration is unilaterally rewriting our immigration laws, defying congressional authority and threatening our constitutional framework,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
“This is a blatant abuse of executive power that ignores the will of Congress and the American people,” he said.
The new policy would apply to illegal immigrants up to age 30 who came to the U.S. as children, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The plan is expected to affect about 800,000 individuals.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the move rightly considers individual circumstances in immigration cases.
“Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here,” she said.
Obama’s move also has political implications, as both the president and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney are contending for Latino votes. It also comes amid talk of a DREAM Act compromise floated by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rumored to be on the short list of candidates to be named as Romney’s running mate.
Rubio has said his plan would allow undocumented students who stay in school and display good character to obtain a visa, but it would fall short of the DREAM Act’s formal path to citizenship. However, this idea also has won little support among DREAM Act critics. For example, FAIR said a “watered-down Republican version of the DREAM Act is still bad public policy” and would reward illegal immigration.
Although Rubio has yet to introduce his bill in the Senate, he criticized the president’s latest move, saying it would not build consensus on the issue.
While there is interest in helping some undocumented students, Rubio said, it must not be done in a way that encourages more illegal immigration.
“This is a difficult balance to strike, one that this new policy, imposed by executive order, will make harder to achieve in the long run,” Rubio said.
The Department of Homeland Security said that the new policy will take effect immediately and that individuals likely can begin the application process within 60 days. Starting this week, individuals also can call a government hotline at 1-800-375-5283 for more information.