President Barack Obama made a dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policy on June 15, 2012, when he announced that his administration would offer the children of illegal immigrants the chance to stay in the country legally, a DREAM Act alternative.
His executive order was expected to affect as many as 1.8 million young immigrants who have lived under the specter of deportation.
The Obama plan, which allows for "deferred action" designation, calls for making illegal immigrants immune from deportation if they entered the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30 years old. They have to have lived in the U.S. for five continuous years and have no criminal history. They also have to have graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED here, or served in the U.S. military.
Beginning Aug. 15, 2012, those young people who are eligible will be able to apply for a two-year work permit that could be renewed unlimited times. The new policy mirrors DREAM Act legislation, with the exception that it does not have a provision that allows a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
President Obama immediately faced criticism that he was motivated by political expediency, less than five months before the presidential election. Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting bloc and many have been disappointed with the administration’s lack of progress on the DREAM Act and other immigration reforms.
Republicans also criticized the president for doing an end-run around Congress. He said during a news conference that he was answering a moral calling. “Let us 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. “This is the right thing to do.”
The Department of Homeland Security will implement the new policy for the administration. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano says the government will use its “prosecutorial discretion” to stop deporting young people who find themselves living here illegally through no fault of their own.
“Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways,” Napolitano said. In 2011, the Obama administration announced it was shifting priorities on deportation and reviewing thousands of cases. The idea was to concentrate removal efforts on illegal immigrants with felony criminal records, rather than removing those whose only offenses were violations of immigration law.
The undocumented immigrant population is estimated at about 11.2 million, so the the policy change would affect roughly 8% of illegal residents. Supporters of the DREAM Act have argued that it also would help the U.S. economy.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, said during the primary debates that he opposed the DREAM Act and a path to legal residency for undocumented youths. He criticized Obama’s announcement for being an impediment to true reform.
“I think the action of the president today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution,” Romney said, “because an executive order is, of course, a short-term matter than can be reversed by subsequent presidents.”
During the George W. Bush administration, the DREAM Act had bipartisan support in both houses of Congress but that waned as political discord intensified. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has worked on a Republican version of the DREAM Act that resembles the Obama changes. Rubio criticized the president’s plan for “going around Congress” and potentially promoting more illegal immigrants to come here.
“There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own,” he said in a statement. “But there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future.”
Implementation of the Obama plan was virtually immediate, according to Napolitano and other government officials, who said deportations of young people had stopped.