President Barack Obama surprised the nation and did an end-around on the Republicans last Friday when he announced an executive order that protects young, undocumented immigrants from being deported.
The decision is not a blanket amnesty for the nation's more than 12 million unauthorized immigrants, but provides those between the ages of 16 and 30 the opportunity to avoid becoming enmeshed in the immigration apparatus. The executive order affects undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16; who have resided continuously in the country for at least five years preceding the date of the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] memorandum and those present in the United States on the date of this memorandum.
"Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people," Obama said during a Rose Garden press conference on June 15.
"Now, let's be clear – this is not an amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely, while giving relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people."
"These young people study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents – sometimes as infants – and often have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job, or a driver's license, or a college scholarship."
The decision has left immigrants generally joyous, cautious and hopeful but some advocates feel that Obama hasn't done enough and they are demanding that he end the deportations and push through comprehensive and far-reaching legislation in Congress.
Undocumented immigrants must be currently in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a GED certificate, or be honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States to be considered. They cannot have been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety; and they cannot be above the age of 30.
Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute [MPI] and Mark Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center said their research indicates that about 1.4 million undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 are affected. Some are already involved in removal proceedings or could be at risk of being deported in the future.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has directed the department's personnel to exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis using the criteria outlined in the executive order.
"This is only really a temporary gaining of status for this population," said Mittelstadt, MPI's director of communications. "Under the announcement, there is a certain defined population ... they will be protected from deportation for two years. It's not conveying legal status on this population. Anybody who meets the criteria and who comes up against immigration authorities will be considered."
"This obviously in the lives of these people is a tremendously important action. They don't have to look over their shoulders, they can get work permits and be able to work legally."
Another MPI official elaborated.
"This action by the administration will have a measurable effect on the lives of many immigrants at a time when Washington is deadlocked on making necessary reform to the immigration system," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of MPI's office at New York University Law School. "However, a program of this scale will present significant implementation challenges and will need to be addressed with increased capacity, training and oversight."
Unauthorized immigrants who are 15 and older will have to present themselves to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and substantiate the deportation-relief criteria the authorities seek. Homeland Security will have to determine the eligibility of about 890,000 people while the agency processes the more than 5 million applications for immigration benefits it handles annually. In addition, DHS will have to lay the groundwork for and execute a comprehensive, multilingual media and public outreach campaign to educate immigrant communities on the details of the deferred action and, in a later phase, how to apply for employment authorization, MPI officials said.
Of course, there is little that occurs in Washington that isn't deemed political, overt or otherwise. It didn't take long for Republican challenger Mitt Romney to subtly criticize Obama's move, although he wouldn't say if he would reverse the decision. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, however, were more pointed in their criticism, with Brewer calling Obama's decision "outrageous."
Conservative Congressional Republicans and supporters of rigid immigration enforcement accused Obama of overstepping his authority and they condemned the plan as "backdoor amnesty." Republican leaders are also left to worry about being boxed into a corner and they are concerned that Romney's position on immigration leaves them vulnerable with Hispanic voters. Romney has advocated some draconian positions with regards to immigration. He called for the erection of more fences on the border, promised to veto the "Dream Act" and has as an immigration advisor one of the people responsible for crafting some of the toughest crackdowns against immigrants.
Avis Jones-DeWeever called Obama's action a commonsense move.
"I definitely think that this was a direction that needed to be taken," she said. "It was an issue of who was savvy enough to push the button. It could have been Rubio. He [Obama] tried to pass the 'Dream Act' but faced tremendous resistance from Republicans. This, in particular, is really at the root of justice ... it's commonsense and the country will ultimately benefit. This is an opportunity to legitimately give back."
"Although it's stereotypic that this will only benefit Latinos, it will benefit all immigrants who've made their way to these shores. The immigrant community is much broader and more diverse. It's not limited to one particular or specific community."
Several analysts and political pundits credit Obama with seizing the immigration initiative and outsmarting and outmaneuvering the GOP.
Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women and a policy and political analyst, agreed.
"This move is consistent with his past actions. It is not a shallow act," she said during an interview on Monday. "The president faces a concerted challenge. They [the Republicans] have done a tremendous job, a calculated one, then the Citizens United case allows them to spend unlimited amounts of money. They are very strong and very disciplined with their legislative and PR strategy and have opposed everything the president has put forward while creating a false crisis about the deficit which has taken people's eyes off job creation."
The GOP has not helped its case by choosing to pursue "a two-pronged approach of appealing to a monolithic community while engaging in voter suppression and purging voter rolls [of Hispanics, young people and other minorities]," Jones-DeWeever added.
Lopez, the center's associate director, said his fact tank's findings indicate considerable support among Hispanics for a more permanent immigration plan.
He said surveys conducted by the center indicate that 60 percent of Hispanics expressed disappointment at the Obama Administration's handling of deportations. To date, about 400,000 Hispanics have been forcibly removed from the U.S. and sent back to their respective countries. Approximately 90 percent, however, support a federal act like the Dream Act, he added.