President Barack Obama’s decision to end deportations of some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children gives him added leverage with Hispanic voters less than five months before Election Day.
The action yesterday, affecting about 800,000 undocumented immigrants, may box in Republicans -- including presumptive party presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- who have favored a get-tough approach to border security over any rewrite of immigration laws while downplaying the issue in the national campaign.
“In Nevada and Colorado it could make a big difference, and also some in Florida too,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “In Virginia, it could make a difference too. The Hispanic population is sizable and rising rapidly.”
Obama has come under criticism from some Hispanic leaders for not pushing hard enough for changes in immigration law and for stepped up enforcement against undocumented residents. The U.S. deported 396,906 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, a record, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The administration’s action bypasses Congress, where legislation known as the Dream Act designed to give a path to legal status for younger undocumented immigrants has been stalled. It also pushes the issue back into the spotlight in the election campaign between Obama and Romney, who has opposed the Dream Act.
The government estimates there are 11.5 million people in the country illegally. Obama’s policy affects those who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record and are in school or have a high school diploma or equivalent, or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces.
“This is not amnesty, this is not immunity,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden yesterday. “This is not a path to citizenship, it’s not a permanent fix.”
Romney told reporters in Milford, New Hampshire, yesterday that Obama should have sought legislation, and that if elected he would seek a statute providing “certainty and clarity” for some younger illegal immigrants who are in the U.S. “through no fault of their own.”
“We have to find a long-term solution, but the president’s action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult,” the former Massachusetts governor said as he embarked on a six-state bus tour.
During the Republican primaries, Romney said he would veto the Dream Act and that anyone in the U.S. illegally should return to the home countries while applying for residency.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said he raised concerns with the administration two months ago that career Department of Homeland Security officials were deporting young people who would be covered by provisions of the Dream Act. He said Obama’s decision to address that issue creates stark party differences in this fall’s election.
“I do believe on balance most independents and certainly many people on our side feel this is an historic humanitarian moment,” Durbin, a sponsor of the Dream Act, said in a telephone interview.
Obama’s action parallels a proposal by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida -- a potential vice presidential candidate for Romney -- to grant work visas to some young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children if they served in the military or pursued an education.
In a statement yesterday, Rubio said that while there was wide support for helping children who are undocumented through no fault of their own, Obama’s policy will make it harder to balance achieving that goal while discouraging illegal immigration.
The announcement “will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long-term problem,” Rubio said.
The policy shift comes one week before Obama is scheduled to speak the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, Florida. Romney is scheduled to address the group the day before, according to the association’s website.
Obama campaign officials are counting on strong support from Hispanic voters to give the president an edge in what most national polls show is a close race. Obama in 2008 won the Hispanic vote over Republican John McCain by 67 percent to 31 percent, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Polls this year show he still maintains a significant edge. Obama leads Romney 61 percent to 27 percent among Hispanics, according to a May 16-21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 300 Hispanic adults.
The issue for the president is whether these voters will be motivated enough to cast ballots in November, said Teixeira, who specializes in electoral demographics.
“They’re pretty confident African-Americans will turn out,” he said of the Obama campaign. “There was always more fear that the Hispanics might not show up.”
Obama has supported an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws to create a work-permit system and a path to citizenship for some of the 11.5 million people now in the U.S. illegally, a plan backed by his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush. Congressional Republicans have blocked the proposal and several states, including Arizona, have tightened immigration enforcement.
Under the policy announced yesterday, those eligible can apply for a two-year deferment on any deportation action, and if granted, gain the ability to work in the U.S. Those with the deferments must renew them every two years in order to stay in the U.S.
Obama’s action may be vulnerable to a legal challenge because his executive order goes beyond the typical scope of presidential orders, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He said Obama is trying to accomplish a policy objective by executive fiat.
“This is usurping the powers of Congress,” Baker said. “Congress may not be willing to pass it, but we have a Constitution that says this is Congress’s job.”
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said it is “an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress and with a directive he may not have the authority to execute.”
Some young immigrants who could benefit from the new policy heralded yesterday’s action.
Houston resident Loren Campos, 23, said he achieved a lifelong dream in May 2011 when he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in civil engineering. His pride, though, was overshadowed by fear that he could be deported at any time because he came to this country illegally.
He said his graduation “was bittersweet” because of the fear. “Now this policy change will provide an opportunity to give back to the country I consider my home.”