WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 November 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 United States.
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 difficult.”
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 immigrants.
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.
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 avoid 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.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Samson Reiny, Alister Bull, Andy Sullivan and Laura MacInnis; Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham