In election-year shift, Obama halts deportations of young immigrants, offers work permits

President Barack Obama unveiled a major, election-year policy shift on Friday that will allow hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to remain and work in the United States.

About 800,000 people who arrived before they turned 16 will not be deported and will be able to apply for work permits. Both changes track legislation stalled in Congress known as the DREAM Act — though, unlike that proposal, Obama’s executive order is temporary and will not provide a path to U.S. residency or citizenship.

“These are young people who studied in our schools,” Obama said from the White House Rose Garden. “They play in our neighborhoods. They’re friends with our kids. They pledge allegiance to our flag. They’re Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way, but one: on paper.”

His remarks were met with excited chatter and tears of joy by several undocumented students and their supporters holding American flags who gathered at the student life building at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami to watch the announcement.

Among them was José Machado, a 17-year-old rising senior at Miami Senior High School who arrived from Nicaragua when he was 6 because he and his twin brother needed a medical procedure. His family never went back.

His mother was deported last year after she was stopped for driving without a license. She was held in a detention center at first, and because he had no legal identification himself, José could not see his mother before she was sent back to Nicaragua.

“The policy change gives me an opportunity,” said José, who wants to go to college to study political science. “I know my mom will be proud now that I can move forward.”

The new protections, which take effect immediately, will apply to people 30 or younger who have lived in the United States for at least five years. They cannot have major criminal records and must be enrolled in school or have U.S. high school diplomas or equivalencies, or be honorably discharged military veterans. It will take two months to put the protections in place, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Deportations of DREAM Act-eligible immigrants have slowed since last summer, when Obama administration officials lessened their focus on certain immigrants, including those with no criminal record or who arrived in the country as children. Instead, they turned their focus to dangerous foreign criminals and foreigners deemed national-security threats.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement Friday that immigration laws are not designed “to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language.”

The new policy, a directive known as “deferred action,” protects an immigrant from deportation for two years, with renewal at the discretion of immigration authorities. A future administration could choose not to renew the protections — a point Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made when he briefly spoke to reporters at a campaign stop in Milford, N.H.

“An executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter that can be reversed by subsequent presidents,” said Romney, who has said he would veto the DREAM Act as president.

Unlike others in his party who decried Obama’s move as a version of amnesty, Romney was more measured. He limited himself to endorsing an earlier statement from Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who called Obama’s plan “welcome news” but also warned for the need for a long-term solution rather than the president’s temporary fix.

Rubio has discussed — but has yet to file legislation — the need for an alternative to the DREAM Act that would not provide a direct path to citizenship. In his statement Friday, however, Rubio said that Obama’s decision to impose the changes by executive order would make it difficult to achieve broader immigration policy changes with Congressional support in the future.

“There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own, but there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future,” Rubio said. “This is a difficult balance to strike, one that this new policy, imposed by executive order, will make harder to achieve in the long run.”

Obama is scheduled to address a conference of Hispanic lawmakers next week in Orlando. So is Romney.

Others in the GOP were more direct in slamming Obama.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, said Obama’s action “smacks as a desperate and blatant political move. Instead of delivering comprehensive immigration reform, the President’s order barely touches on his promise” for such reform.

He and other Miami Cuban-American Republicans in Congress — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart — have broken with their party to support the DREAM Act. Rep. David Rivera has filed a DREAM Act alternative.

The question of what to do about immigrants brought into the country illegally as children has placed Republicans who oppose the Democratic-sponsored DREAM Act in an awkward position because, political convictions aside, they don’t want to be seen as picking on kids.

The criticism that Obama made the significant policy change primarily for political gain leading up to his reelection bid may be a small price to pay for the expected increase in enthusiasm and support from Hispanics in swing states like Florida, said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, which studies Hispanic voting trends.

“I see absolutely no downside [for Obama] to this. None,” Barreto said. “I can’t think of any segment — except the tea party — that would be opposed to this.”

Even among non-Hispanics, the DREAM Act and similar proposals poll very well, Barreto said, and the issue is critical for registered Hispanic voters because a majority of them have a close friend or family member without legal status. “They live in the same houses,” he said.

While polls have shown Obama is more popular among Hispanics than Romney, the polls have also noted that Hispanic voters’ enthusiasm for the president has cooled because of his administration’s stepped-up deportations and because he failed to deliver on his promise to pass immigration reform in his first term.

One criticism leveled against the president on Friday was that his policy does not go far enough. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who for years ministered to Haitian-American and Caribbean-American communities, said without U.S. residency, young immigrants will still be in limbo.

“Their dream is still a dream deferred,” he lamented.

But for self-appointed “DREAMers” like Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, one of four South Floridians who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington D.C. in 2010 to call attention to their plight, the impact of Friday’s announcement could not be overstated.

Sousa-Rodriguez, who graduated last month from St. Thomas University and moved to Tampa two weeks ago, was awestruck by Obama’s action.

“I’ve worked so hard trying to get the president to do exactly what he did,” said Sousa-Rodriguez, 26, who came to Miami from Brazil when he was 14. “Twelve years waiting for some sort of recognition, and then, there it came. This is such an amazing moment.”

“I can get a work permit,” he added. “And I get to drive.”

Miami Herald writer Kristofer√ Rios and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report from Miami. McClatchy national correspondents Lesley Clark contributed from Washington and David Lightman from Milford, N.H.