The Department of Homeland Security on Friday announced a significant change in immigration policy, essentially providing amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria and are in the country in good standing.
The policy, effective immediately, applies to young people under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. before they turned 16 years old. They must have lived in the United States for five years, have no criminal record, and earned a high school diploma, remained in school or served in the military.
The DHS decision, formally announced by President Obama this afternoon, closely reflects the DREAM Act, the controversial measure popular among Hispanics that has been debated in Congress since it was first introduced in 2001 and which died in the Senate last year.
Obama said the new policy affects about 800,000 undocumented immigrants. He said the change in policy provides a degree of relief and hope “to talented, driven, patriotic young people” and makes the nation’s immigration system “more fair, more efficient, and more just.”
“This is not amnesty, this is not immunity,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden. “This is not a path to citizenship, it’s not a permanent fix.”
The administration’s action would bypass Congress, where 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 Republican Mitt Romney, who has opposed the Dream Act.
Besides benefitting children of immigrants, the DREAM Act would have allowed some illegal immigrants who came to this country as children to gain legal status. The act has been a hot-button issue during the GOP presidential primaries – and presumptive candidate Mitt Romney has come out against the legislation.
In a release issued on Friday from the DHS, those meeting the criteria will be granted the two-year stay under certain conditions. The conditions as laid out in the release:
• Any foreign-born children who came to the U.S. age 16 years or younger and who have continuously resided in the United States for at least five years
• They must not have been convicted of a felony offense or of multiple misdemeanor offenses or pose a threat to national security
• The policy extends to those in school, or high school graduates, or those with a GED or equivalent, or have been in military service with an honorable discharge
• Cannot be above the age of 30
The statement reads, “DHS cannot provide any assurance that all such requests will be granted.” The release also says that although “this guidance takes effect immediately, USCIS and ICE expect to begin implementation of the application processes within sixty days."
The “deferred action” also will be extended to those who meet the criteria but are currently in the deportation process.
The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, in a conference call, said: "I believe that additional measures are needed to ensure that our enforcement resources are not extended on low priority cases but are instead appropriately focused on people who meet our enforcement priorities.
"Therefore, consistent with our existing use of prosecutorial discretion, today I am announcing that effective immediately young people who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own as children, and who meet several peak criteria, will no longer be removed from the country or entered into removal proceedings."
The announcement comes as Obama is courting the Hispanic vote as the November presidential election draws near. Many battleground states have burgeoning Hispanic populations — Florida key among them — and Obama has been actively pursuing Hispanic votes in these swing states.
At a campaign stop in Cleveland on Wednesday, just one day before the announcement, Obama declared: “If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity to people from all over the world, we won’t deport hard-working responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here. We’ll let them earn the chance to become American citizens so they can grow our economy.”
Reaction to the administration's announcement was split along party lines.
Fla. Rep. Allen West, a Republican, called it an "overreach" of Obama's executive powers and Sen. Lamar Alexander called it a 'breach of faith" against the American people.
Predictably, Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, called it a just move for those who long to make their dreams come true in America and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., dubbing it an "historic humanitarian moment."
As for the DREAM Act – called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – it would have provided conditional legal status to qualifying young people who were brought to the United States before they were 16.
They would have six years to either graduate from a community college, complete two years toward a bachelor's degree or higher, serve in the military or receive an honorable discharge.
Applicants also would have had to maintain "good moral character" throughout the period. They also could not have applied for Pell grants but could have sought student loans and work-study.
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