As Obama tweaks policy on illegal immigrants, will Latino voters swoon?

Obama moves to make it easier for some illegal immigrants to obtain legal status, dismantling hurdles set by congressional Republicans. The step is likely to shore up his support among Latino voters, but it could also polarize the country.

Denis Poroy/AP/File
Detainees at the El Centro immigration detention facility in El Centro, California wait for lunch.

The Obama White House acted Friday to ease the transition from illegal immigrant to legal US resident, another assertion of executive power that sidesteps Congress and a move that some see as calculated to boost the president's standing among Latinos in an election year. 

Beneficiaries of the administration's move are families in which some members are US citizens and some aren't. The aim is to shorten the duration of separation for such families, rather than require the illegal residents to return to their home countries for as many as 10 years before applying for legal US residency, as a 1996 law – approved by a Republican-led Congress – mandates.

The proposed change will undergo a review but doesn't require congressional approval. Under the so-called "hardship waiver," illegal immigrants who are married or otherwise related to US citizens would be able to pick up the waiver before leaving the United States and then be allowed to return almost immediately after picking up visas in their home countries. 

Critics decry it as a "backdoor amnesty" that eases the path to citizenship for lawbreakers.

In another sign that the Obama administration is working to lower the bar to citizenship, one-quarter of all US immigration officers report they've been pressured by supervisors to overlook problems on citizenship applications, according to a draft report released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General. That report drew a rebuke from Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, who accused Alejandro Mayorkas, chief of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, of downplaying national security concerns.

By making it easier for undocumented immigrants from mixed citizenship families to achieve legal status, the administration may tamp down ire within the Hispanic community over record numbers of deportations during the Obama presidency. It also offers a counterpoint to Republican presidential candidates, most of whom endorse policies against illegal immigration that many Latinos see as harsh and even cruel.

Obama's strategy is designed both to normalize relations with an important but restive Hispanic voting bloc and to stoke a political fight with Republicans. The strategy aims to contrast Obama's approach to illegal immigrants against hardline Republican rhetoric about the need to deport each and every one.

Some conservative commentators acknowledge Obama's is a powerful strategy, especially as the GOP presidential candidates, in their many debates, just keep reciting the ills of illegal immigration.

“Immigration has loomed larger as an issue in the Republican presidential debates than it does in the minds of most voters,” writes Daniel Griswold in the conservative publication National Review Online. “So far, the biggest loser in the competition is the Republican Party. The party is losing out because the rhetoric brings us no closer to actually solving the problem, while driving away voters crucial to the party's long-term success.”

Obama's political strategy has its risks. It is feeding perceptions among conservatives that the president is flouting the Constitution by going around Congress to shape legislative policy. Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head a consumer watchdog agency and his recess appointments of three members of the National Labor Relations Board are examples of the White House stepping outside executive-branch boundaries, they say.

“The left – big surprise – views the Constitution as irrelevant when the president (so long as he’s acting for good and noble reasons) has important things to do,” writes Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin of the latest recess appointments. “It is especially distasteful that he is willing to provoke a constitutional furor ... as a political stunt, to boost his leftist base and pick a fight with a co-equal branch. It’s the politics of Chicago and Newt Gingrich, daring anyone to stop him.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, author of a 1996 law that created 3- and 10-year bars for deported illegal immigrants to return to the United States, called the administration's move “an abuse of administrative powers.”

The White House justifies its ramped-up use of executive powers, saying the problems of the country are too serious to be hamstrung by what it sees as obstructionist ploys by Republicans.

Many Hispanics applauded the administration's move for a new provisional waiver. Obama will need a big majority of the Hispanic vote to win the key battleground states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. One immigration rights activist, Angelica Salas, called the new waiver “a welcome rational solution to a simple problem that will keep thousands of families together, according to The New York Times.

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