U.S. President Barack Obama took a bold step forward and stirred up strong emotions on both sides of the debate on comprehensive immigration reform when he announced on Friday that he had passed an executive order requiring that young, undocumented immigrants no longer be deported to their home countries.
Even as host of Republican-controlled states such as Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina seek to tighten the noose around undocumented immigrants, Mr. Obama defiantly opened up a new front against his opposition in the intensifying election campaign for November. This move may put Republican support from Latino voters at risk, said some experts.
Speaking at the White House Rose Garden the President said, “Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people.” He added that over the next few months, eligible individuals who did not present a risk to national security or public safety could request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorisation.
At the event a heckler in the crowd shouted out remarks about placing “... foreigners over American workers,” but Mr. Obama firmly cut him off saying, “Excuse me, sir. It's not time for questions, sir... Not while I'm speaking.”
Mr. Obama’s gambit comes in the wake of the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the so-called DREAM Act in the face of consistent opposition by Republicans. The Act, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, contains similar conditions to those that Mr. Obama outlined in his executive order.
However it also follows months of criticism of the Obama administration’s immigration policies by Latino groups, who have pointed out that there has been an overall increase in deportations of undocumented aliens in recent years. For example in 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were said to have deported removed 396,906 immigrants, “the largest number in the agency's history.”
As per Mr. Obama’s order, individuals would have to be between the ages of sixteen and thirty to be eligible for the deferment of deportation action. They should also have been brought to the U.S. prior to turning sixteen, have resided in the country for at least five years before making an application, and currently be in school, have graduated from high school certificate or have been honourably discharged from the military.
Any individual convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanour, or posing some other threat to national security would be ineligible under the new law. According to official sources speaking to media on background the policy change is expected to potentially affect 800,000 people.
The announcement immediately drew fire from Republican leaders. Representative Steve King of Iowa threatened to file a lawsuit asking the courts to block Mr. Obama “from implementing his unconstitutional and unlawful policy,” and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described policy as “a classic Barack Obama move of choosing politics over leadership.”
Latino voters and groups however welcomed the White House announcement, with Pedro Ramirez, a student who has campaigned for such a move, saying to CNN that he was “definitely speechless,” adding, “It’s great news.”
Similarly Laura Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the Latino group National Council of La Raza, was quoted saying, “In light of the congressional inaction on immigration reform, this is the right step for the administration to take at this time.”