DREAM deferred? Will Obama order make immigration reform harder?

President Obama, acting without Congress, took steps to curtail deportations for young illegal immigrants. Republicans say the move could jeopardize prospects for immigration reform.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File
Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, a longtime supporter of a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, listens as DREAM Act supporter Gabby Pacheco speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in this file photo from last year.

President Obama's unilateral changes to the nation's deportation policies to shield young illegal immigrants reopened one of the most contentious issues in American politics.

Mr. Obama's executive action on Friday generated two immediate questions among members of Congress.  

First, is alleviating the plight of young illegal immigrants worth the policy's risks? And second, did the president hurt immigration reform's long-term prospects by doing a short-term fix that conservatives saw as an end run around congressional authority and the Constitution?

Obama's policies would allow certain illegal immigrants a renewable two-year deferral from deportation and eligibility to apply for work authorization. Those affected are individuals who came to the US before age 16 but are now under age 30; have lived in the US for at least five continuous years; are in school or have graduated from high school or are serving in the military; and have not been convicted of a felony or a significant misdemeanor.

They are essentially the same people who would be affected by the DREAM Act, an immigration-reform bill that has stalled in Congress. 

Many Democrats welcomed the move, which they say means real differences in the lives of illegal immigrants today.

"The Obama administration’s decision to extend temporary legal status to DREAM Act students is an historic humanitarian moment," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois in a statement. "This action will give these young immigrants their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they’ve ever called home."

Likewise, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey tweeted: "Young #DREAMers should not have to suffer & leave the country they have known & call #home because #Congress is failing to act."

Republicans, on the other hand, saw a policy that would be a "magnet for fraud," as Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas put it in a statement, because immigration authorities would be unable to verify a person's eligibility for the new policy. Once granted a work visa, Congressman Smith said these individuals would compete for already scarce jobs with native-born Americans.

"President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," said Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee

No matter the implications in the near future, a key Republican force on immigration reform – Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida – questioned whether the president's action would lead to even more bitterness and gridlock on the long-stalemated issue of comprehensive immigration reform. 

Senator Rubio said that there is widespread consensus on the need to enact policy that would help "kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own" while not encouraging illegal immigration in the future.

"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 in a statement. “Today’s 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. And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one.”

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona sounded a similar note in a statement.

"Today’s announcement by President Obama is a politically motivated power grab that does nothing to further the debate but instead adds additional confusion and uncertainty to our broken immigration system," said Senator McCain, who collaborated with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in an attempt at immigration reform half a decade ago.

"Rather than unilaterally deciding for the American people what they want and how they believe this problem should be addressed, I encourage the President and his Administration to finally reach out to Congress and propose legislation on this important issue," he added.

Indeed, congressional Republicans burst forth with recriminations over the policy.

"It seems the Con Law Professor President forgot to read Article I. He needs a stark reminder," tweeted Rep. Dennis Ross (R) of Florida. The conservative freshman lawmaker referred to the first article of the US Constitution, which reads in part, "all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States."

The president's allies on Capitol Hill were quick to point out that the president's move was temporary – a future administration could unravel it as instantaneously as Obama instituted it. And they said the move would put pressure on Republicans to come to an accord on long-stalled legislation. 

"The president’s actions were necessary due to the gridlock which has sadly become a normal condition for Congress," said Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D) of Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a statement. "A legislative remedy is still needed. President Obama’s decision should serve as a call to action for the Congress to meet its responsibilities."

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