* Policy could benefit 800,000 young illegal immigrants
* Under policy, they would be allowed to seek work permits
* Announcement comes ahead of Nov. 6 presidential election
* Republicans critical of the new policy changes
By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, June 15 About 800,000 young illegal
immigrants who came to the United States as children could be
spared deportation for at least two years under new rules
announced on Friday by President Barack Obama that may appeal to
Hispanic voters in an election year.
"This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a
path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix," Obama told
reporters at the White House, adding that a permanent U.S.
immigration policy solution would have to come from Congress.
The move comes as Obama, a Democrat, is courting the
nation's fast-growing Hispanic population while trying to win
re-election on Nov. 6 against Republican Mitt Romney, who has
taken a harsh stand against illegal immigration. Most U.S.
illegal immigrants are Hispanics.
Under Obama's plan, those who qualify would be allowed to
live and work in the United States for two years and could be
eligible for extensions, the Obama administration said.
Obama has long supported measures to allow the children of
illegal immigrants to study and work in the United States, but
efforts to pass such measures in Congress have failed amid
objections by Republicans.
The president's action sidestepped Congress and laid down a
challenge to Republicans, many of whom view leniency on
deportations as amounting to amnesty for illegal immigrants at a
time when there are an estimated 12 million such people in the
Republican lawmakers attacked the president's move, accusing
Obama of encroaching into Congress' authority to set laws
governing U.S. citizenship.
But Obama said, "This is a temporary stop-gap measure that
lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of
relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people."
Many of these illegal residents have lived most of their
lives in the United States, attending American elementary and
secondary schools. "They are Americans in their hearts and
minds; in every single way but one - on paper," Obama said.
While campaigning in New Hampshire, Romney said, "The
president's actions make reaching a long-term solution more
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who made
the initial announcement, said that illegal immigrants up to 30
years old who came to the United States as children and do not
pose a risk to national security would be eligible to stay in
the country and allowed to apply for work permits.
The policy was announced a week before Obama is scheduled to
address a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected
and Appointed Officials in Florida. Romney also is set to
address the group next week.
Public opinion polls show Obama receiving overwhelming
support from Hispanic voters compared to Romney, but the
president's relations with Hispanics have been strained because
of his administration's aggressive deportation of illegal
There are up to 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the
United States as children and who remain in the country,
according to immigration group estimates. U.S. officials said
the new measures would affect roughly 800,000 people.
'WE NEED A LAW'
Democrats in Congress hailed the Obama administration's
decision, but said there still was a need to enact legislation
to permanently protect such immigrants. "We need a law," Senator
Richard Durbin of Illinois told Reuters. "But until we create
this law, this is a historic humanitarian moment."
Napolitano - a former governor of Arizona, a state on the
U.S.-Mexico border whose politics have been vexed by dispute
over immigration - said that "young people who were brought to
the United States through no fault of their own as children and
who meet several key criteria will no longer be removed from the
country or entered into removal proceedings."
To void deportation under Obama's plan, a person must have
come to the United States under the age of 16 and have resided
in the country for at least five years. They must be in school
or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged
from the U.S. military. They also must not have been convicted
of any felony or significant misdemeanor offenses.
Leading Republicans in Congress criticized the new policy.
House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar
Smith called Obama's decision a "breach of faith" that he said
will have "horrible consequences" for unemployed Americans who
are looking for jobs only to find that illegal immigrants will
work for less money.
Other Republicans challenged Obama's legal authority to
impose his plan, but did not spell out what they might do to try
to stop it. "The president's actions trample on the rule of law
and remind voters of why he should be defeated in November,"
said Republican Senator Jim DeMint.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is the author of
legislation allowing this group of immigrants to attend college
in the United States and serve in the military, while also
providing them a path to citizenship. Durbin said he would like
to try passing his bill this year, but that he needed Republican
help to overcome procedural roadblocks.
Immigration is a big issue for Hispanics, an increasingly
important voting bloc in the United States that could help
determine who wins the election between Obama and Romney.
Early this year, during the Republican presidential primary
campaign season, Romney said he favored "self-deportation" in
which illegal immigrants would realize they would be better off
returning to their native countries because they cannot find
jobs in the United States.
That hard-line position could hurt Romney in Hispanic-heavy
election battleground states like Nevada and Florida.
In an attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters, however, Romney
has argued that his plans to help revive the U.S. economy would
translate into gains for this minority group.
Republican lawmaker Smith said, "President Obama's amnesty
only benefits illegal immigrants, not Americans, and is a magnet
for fraud. Many illegal immigrants will falsely claim they came
here as children and the federal government has no way to check
whether their claims are true."
"And once these illegal immigrants are granted deferred
action, they can then apply for a work permit, which the
administration routinely grants 90 percent of the time," added
Smith, whose panel oversees immigration legislation and he has
been on record opposing limited measures introduced in Congress.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge
to Arizona's tough immigration laws targeting people living and
working in the state illegally, with a ruling expected as early
as next week.