Washington is buzzing following an announcement by President Barack Obama's administration that the U.S. now will focus its deportation efforts on illegal immigrants with criminal records or those who pose a threat to national security. The new rules also outline ways for those facing deportation, but having no criminal record, to remain in the U.S. and even apply for a work permit.
Advocates, while celebrating the news, said they would press the president for even more pro-immigration action. Opponents, including many Republican lawmakers, called it a massive amnesty plan.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her agency will review all of the 300,000 cases pending in immigration courts, but the new focus will be deporting criminals and serious violators of immigration law. Undocumented immigrants classified as low-priority could see their deportation stayed and be offered a chance to apply for a work visa.
Pro-immigration activists immediately lauded the move. Gustavo Torres is Executive Director of Casa de Maryland, a group that advocates for immigrants.
“They are going to pretty much allow people who are undocumented here, making a contribution in this great nation, to keep doing that, so that is the reason we are very happy about that decision,” said Torres.
Napolitano told senators in a letter Thursday that the Obama administration repeatedly has said it makes no sense to expend enforcement resources on low-priority cases.
The announcement angered some Republican lawmakers and others who oppose illegal immigration. They say Obama has simply overstepped his bounds.
Ira Mehlman is with FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He expects Congress, especially the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives, will challenge the President.
“Congress cannot and must not allow the administration to usurp the constitutional authority that Congress has to make our immigration policies. It is the responsibility of the administration to carry out the laws written by Congress," said Mehlman. "Whether the administration likes those laws or not, they are bound constitutionally to enforce them.”
Mehlman said it is average Americans who pay the bill for illegal immigrants.
“This is not cheap labor. It is subsidized labor. When you have people coming here and working for substandard wages, they have to be subsidized by everybody else. If they bring kids and put their kids in the schools, the rest of us pay for that. If they have to use healthcare, we pay for that. There are all sorts of costs that come along with that that the employer passes to the American taxpayer,” he said.
The administration’s plan likely will stoke political tensions as the 2012 campaign season ramps up. Republicans are accusing Obama of granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
And pro-immigration activists would like to see the president do more for their cause. Like Torres, they say more than 1 million immigrants have been deported on the president’s watch.
“If he keeps deporting our community as he has been doing in the last two-and-a-half years, I doubt the Latino community is going to vote for him,” said Torres.
Although the number of deportations has grown in recent years, the number of those immigrating illegally actually has dropped.