No Deportation for Young ‘Illegals’: Obama’s End Run on Immigration Reform

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Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 15, 2012 on immigration. Obama spoke about the Department of Homeland Security's announcement to not deport young illegal immigrants based on their security risk and other criteria.

On Friday, the Obama Administration announced it would no longer deport young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, have lived here for five or more years, have no criminal record and have completed some schooling or military service. A memo from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described the move as “prosecutorial discretion,” a reminder that immigration laws are not “designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances.” Such consideration won’t be enough for Jose Antonio Vargas, who wrote about his experience as an “out” undocumented immigrant in TIME: He was born 1 year too early to qualify. But for as many as 800,000 illegal immigrants who are now eligible for work permits, and for President Obama, the reprieve could change everything.

“They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said in an afternoon speech at the White House. “This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship…. It’s the right thing to do.”

The decision lies at the intersection of some of Obama’s most important legacies. Even while the President sought to provide permanent residency to young undocumented immigrants through the failed DREAM Act, he oversaw an unprecedented expansion in deportations–1.2 million in just 3 1/2 years, compared to 1.6 million in Bush’s 8-year term. Friday’s move was the first sign that the rising tide of deportations, opposed by immigration reform advocates, might recede. It was also a harbinger of broader executive branch power, which has expanded under George W. Bush and Obama, in part as a response to historic levels of congressional recalcitrance. Instead of relying on Congress to institute the DREAM Act, Obama ordered his government to observe a near-approximation of its goals.

Obama’s brazenness in circumventing Congress will likely make the policy controversial and invite Republican criticism. It also makes the policy vulnerable: Implementation will be complicated and any future President could reverse the order. As Napolitano wrote in Friday’s memo, the move “confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.”

But as a short-term political tactic, the maneuver rivals Alexander at Gaugamela. Obviously, Obama and Mitt Romney are competing for Latino voters, who rate immigration reform among the most important issues. And while granting work permits to undocumented immigrants may undermine Obama’s case with economically stressed white blue-collar workers–“amnesty” is what some Republicans will call it–the GOP isn’t necessarily on solid footing to attack the measure on those grounds. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the party’s brightest rising star and a potential vice presidential nominee, has proposed a similar policy, even more similar to Obama’s executive order than the original DREAM Act. Many Republicans are left only with a procedural critique: that the move represents an overreach by the White House; legislation by fiat.

“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,” Rubio said in a statement. “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.” Obama gets to put a young, sympathetic face on undocumented immigration, while the GOP must talk Kremlinology.

There are other political nuances to consider: This comes at the end of a very bad month for Obama and at the beginning of a highly-touted Romney bus tour. It’s another example of Obama’s incremental approach to social issues (like gay marriage) that are close to the hearts of his young liberal base. It might make more permanent, bipartisan immigration legislation harder to achieve. Even if mainstream Republicans are caught in an uncomfortable political position, outside spending groups who oppose illegal immigration may yet punish the President with a harsh economic message. But ultimately, this is a story about 800,000 people whom the federal government now classifies differently. “This is huge. HUGE,” Vargas wrote Friday on his Facebook page. “The struggle and fight continues for the remaining millions of us without legal status, but this is a BIG, BOLD and NECESSARY step in the right direction.”