Under President Obama, the U.S. has deported a record number of illegal… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama moved to repair relations with a crucial voting bloc and opened another battle with Republican lawmakers by easing rules on the politically volatile issue of illegal immigration.
His proposal will probably affect tens of thousands — perhaps more than 100,000 — illegal residents. It would end a requirement that undocumented immigrants with parents or spouses in the United States leave the country first if they wish to file paperwork that would forestall deportation on the grounds of family hardship.
Without the so-called hardship waiver, illegal immigrants are barred from reentering the U.S. for up to 10 years. The existing rule often means that people seeking waivers must separate from their families for months or in some cases years while their applications are processed.
Under the new rule, which does not require congressional approval, immigrants would be allowed to stay in the U.S. and apply for a waiver, which can be granted if deporting an immigrant would cause undue hardship to his or her U.S. family. Once waivers are granted, immigrants may apply for green cards. They would still have to leave the U.S. to make those applications, but because they would have hardship waivers in hand, they would be very likely to gain readmission to the country.
About 23,000 immigrants annually use the existing system. Many travel to Ciudad Juarez just over the border from El Paso — and one of Mexico's most dangerous cities — to file their applications and often are stuck there for extended periods. Administration officials expect many more people to apply for waivers once such trips are unnecessary.
The move left Republicans infuriated. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the new rule along with other moves by the president had "granted back-door amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants without a vote of Congress."
Latino groups, many of which have been highly critical of Obama for failing to move aggressively on immigration issues, were delighted. The administration's move is a "sensible and compassionate proposal [that] helps bring much-needed sanity to an often senseless process," said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, which describes itself as the nation's largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group.
Both reactions were welcomed at the White House. Obama's aides have been eager to highlight the difference between the president and Republicans on immigration issues, knowing he has little to lose — the conservative voters who are most deeply concerned about illegal immigration have little likelihood of voting for him — and much to gain.
Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in the 2008 presidential race, according to exit polls, and he needs a similar margin in November to win reelection. Campaign strategists have identified several paths to capturing the 270 electoral votes he needs: All require a strong showing among Latino voters to win swing states including Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
Disquiet over Obama's immigration policies has jeopardized his support among Latino voters. Under Obama, the government has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants. And he has failed to persuade Congress to overhaul the immigration system and provide a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million living in the U.S. illegally, despite a promise that he would address the issue in his first year in office.
A poll by the Pew Hispanic Center last month showed that 59% of Latinos disapproved of Obama's handling of deportations although it also showed the president running far ahead of the Republican presidential candidates. The Republicans have been competing for the toughest rhetoric against illegal immigration as they jockey for the support of the conservative voters who dominate the party's primaries.
The move on immigration followed a pattern the administration has relied on recently of aggressively using executive action to achieve goals that have been stuck in Congress. Earlier this week, Obama used his power to fill job vacancies during congressional recesses to name a chief for the government's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and to fill three slots on the National Labor Relations Board.
Last year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the government would use discretion before deporting illegal immigrants. The aim would be to target felons and "public safety threats" but limit deportations of students and people who've lived here since childhood, officials said.
"If 2011 was the White House's attempt to win back the center, 2012 is about mobilizing the base," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a group that advocates an immigration overhaul. "They are realizing that they need a huge turnout of Latino votes in Florida and in the West."