The Obama administration issued a politically charged policy directive Friday that will make about 800,000 young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children safe from deportation proceedings, and may make them eligible for work permits.
[Editor's Note: The original version of this story misstated the nature of the policy change made by the Obama administration. The change extends an existing policy of prosecutorial discretion in prioritizing the deportation of certain individuals rather than being an executive order. ]
The administration has been under considerable pressure to take action on the behalf of young immigrants, as Congress has been sharply divided about the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that grants conditional residency to select young people brought to the US illegally.
The policy comes as a relief for thousands of young people who are caught in a difficult situation where they consider the United States home but don’t have legal residency. It also should help President Obama – locked in a difficult reelection battle – with Latino voters, who have criticized the administration’s deportation policies.
The new policy will not provide any pathway to permanent residency, but should energize both immigration activists and opponents as the election approaches.
In recent weeks, young activists who call themselves “dreamers” have occupied Obama campaign offices around the country to call for action.
The policy was announced Friday morning by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“Effective immediately, young people who were brought to the US through no fault of their own as children and who meet certain criteria will be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of 2 years and that period will be subject to renewal,” she said.
Mr. Obama will address the issue Friday afternoon from the White House, but news of the change created excitement in the immigrant community.
Roberto Gonzalez, a leading expert on immigration issues at the University of Chicago, says, “Students are really excited. This is not the DREAM Act and doesn’t resolve everything for these students, but it’s a huge step forward for this community.”
Under the order, individuals need to be at least sixteen years old and no older than thirty to be eligible for the deferred action policy. They need to have been brought to the United States before they turned sixteen and need to have resided in the country for at least five continuous years before their application. They also need to be currently in school, or to have graduated from high school or gotten a G.E.D., or have been honorably discharged from the military.
Individuals will be ineligible if they have been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, or multiple minor misdemeanors, or pose some other threat to national security.
Explaining the rationale for the change, Secretary Napolitano said that US immigration laws “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.”
Officials described the order as an act of prosecutorial discretion that will help the federal government focus on higher priority immigration cases.
“This is not immunity, it is not amnesty, it is an exercise of discretion,” said Napolitano.
Napolitano also urged Congress to pass the DREAM Act and continue immigration reform.
Though the policy is effective immediately, senior administration officials said it would take about 60 days to set up the application process.
At that point, individuals not already undergoing deportation proceedings can voluntarily come forward to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to which they must provide documentation showing that they meet the required criteria for deferred action. People already undergoing deportation proceedings need to present their documentation to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After receiving a grant of deferred action, people can apply to USCIS for work authorizations, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
After two years, people who received a grant of deferred action can reapply through USCIS. People under age sixteen will be able to “age in” to the program, provided a future administration does not institute a new policy in the meantime. Administration officials said anyone who receives deferred action will be safe from prosecution for two years, no matter what.
“We should not forget that we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” Napolitano said.