WASHINGTON-- The Obama administration will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and who do not pose a security threat, senior administration officials said this morning, a move that could prove important in a presidential campaign that will turn in part on who wins over Latino voters.
Effective immediately, young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally before they turned 16 will be allowed to apply for work permits as long as they have no criminal history and meet other criteria, officials said.
Obama has called for a broad overhaul of immigration policy and embraces the concept of Dream Act legislation, which would create a path for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to legally remain in the country.
The legislation has repeatedly stalled in Congress.
Republican leaders, including presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, have argued for greater efforts to identify and deport anyone living in the U.S. illegally, including those who have lived and worked here for years, not just those found guilty of committing crimes.
The change the White House announced Friday would allow illegal immigrants under the age of 30 to stay and work in the country if they don’t pose a national security or public safety risk.
Those who meet the criteria will be eligible to apply for deferred action on deportation for a period of two years, and that status will be renewable, one official said. They also will be able to apply for authorization to work.
Individuals have to meet numerous requirements to be eligible to apply. They must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16 and must have resided in the U.S. continuously for at least five years. They must be present in the U.S. now, be enrolled in school, and hold a high school diploma or GED or serve in the U.S. military. Veterans who have been discharged honorably also will be eligible.
Disqualified from application would be felons, immigrants convicted of violent crimes, and repeat offenders of immigration law. Also ineligible would be those convicted of a significant misdemeanor offense or more than one misdemeanor, or those who for some other reason pose a security or safety threat.
The change does not grant permanent lawful status, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters Friday morning.
“It is not immunity. It is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion to ensure these people are not in the removal process and ensure that we are not clogging the immigration system with low-priority cases involving productive young people,” she said.
“We don’t consider this a permanent solution for anyone,” a senior administration official said. “Some future administration can make its own decision on how to treat this decision."
Obama plans to discuss the changes in the Rose Garden on Friday.
Faced with a gridlocked Congress, Obama has used deportation policy to send messages to Latino voters about his views on immigration. But sometimes those messages are conflicting: His administration has boasted of a stepped-up focus on tracking down illegal immigrants with criminal records, and the U.S. has set records for deportations under Obama.
Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would increase by nearly 25% the number of agents charged with finding and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records, pulling 150 officers from desks and backroom jobs to add extra fugitive search teams around the country.
Yet ICE also has told prosecutors to use their discretion on whether to push deportation cases against people with strong family ties in the U.S., including college students and members of the military.
Since Romney became the presumptive nominee, some strategists have urged Romney to take a softer approach. But the former Massachusetts governor has not yet taken a stance on more lenient proposals aimed at accommodating concerns of young people.
Brian Bennett contributed to this report from Washington.