Updated 12:20 p.m. - The Obama administration announced on Friday that it would no longer seek the deportation of most young illegal immigrants, and would instead allow them to apply for work permits, a significant policy shift with potentially major electoral implications.
The Department of Homeland Security said that, effective immediately, the government would no longer seek the deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and would allow them to apply for work permits if they meet certain criteria.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement Friday.
A senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters that as many as 800,000 undocumented immigrants stand to benefit from this change. Napolitano said that the shift represented neither immunity nor amnesty -- buzzwords for conservatives who oppose illegal immigration -- but instead represented an instance of "prosecutorial discretion" in which the government had re-evaluated its priorities in enforcing the law.
The announcement represented a major policy shift, and its political implications will be significant.
The shift essentially accomplishes many of the legislative intentions of the DREAM Act, an immigration reform bill that had stalled in Congress due to Republican objections. President Barack Obama favors the legislation, while presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would veto that law.
The new rule comes amid a bruising election year fight between Obama and Romney, in which the Latino vote could be decisive. Obama enjoys a strong advantage with Latino voters, winning 61 percent of Latinos vs. 27 percent for Romney in a mid-May NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll.
The Hispanic vote is of particular importance in swing states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida, among others. Those states could swing the election toward Obama or Romney, elevating the importance of the margin between the two candidates with Latino voters.
Obama's biggest challenge, though, has involved motivating Latino voters to turn out for him with the same strength they had in 2008. The president had faced lingering complaints stemming from his inability to advance the comprehensive immigration reform he had promised as a candidate in 2008.
The president was scheduled to make remarks about the immigration policy change at the White House at 1:15 p.m. ET on Friday.
In a memorandum to immigration enforcement officials, Napolitano wrote that immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children "lacked the intent to violate the law," and pose few national security risks.
The memo said the government would not pursue immigrants who met five criteria. Individuals must:
-Have come to the United States under the age of 16,
-Be no older than 30,
-Be currently enrolled in school, have graduated high school or served in the military,
-Have been in the country for five continuous years, and
-Have a clean criminal record.
A senior administration official noted that the new rules were not permanent, though, and conceded that a different administration with a different policy could conceivably choose to withdraw this regulation.
"The executive can always change its mind about how to exercise discretion," said the official.
That hard-line stance prompted handwringing among Republicans who have long worried about the long-term political fallout associated with alienating Latino voters. Florda Gov. Jeb Bush suggested earlier this week that much of the Republican rhetoric surrounding immigration had been "insulting."
"Change the tone would be the first thing," he said of his advice to Republicans. "Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach."
Ironically, the Obama administration's new rule would accomplish many of the same goals of a limited version of the DREAM Act proposed by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, which stops short of offering young illegal immigrants citizenship, but gives them a type of legal status. Romney said he was considering the proposal from Rubio, a popular choice of conservatives to round out the Republican ticket as a vice presidential nominee.
In a statement, Rubio straddled praise and criticism for the move.
"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," he said. "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."