(The Root) — In one of his biggest moves on immigration, on Friday President Obama announced that his administration will stop deporting some undocumented youths and provide them with work authorization. The immigrants in question are those who would qualify under the mired DREAM Act (pdf) — young people up to age 30, who were illegally brought to the United States as children and have since led law-abiding lives. According to the administration, the policy change will affect as many as 800,000 young immigrants, including those who were already in the process of deportation.
"They are Americans in their hearts, their minds, in every single way but one: on paper," said President Obama from the White House Rose Garden, adding that oftentimes these immigrants have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job, driver's license or college scholarship.
The new policy will be implemented through a Department of Homeland Security "deferred action" directive that lets the administration bypass Congress. It does not lead to citizenship but allows eligible immigrants to apply for a two-year work permit that can be renewed if they stay out of legal trouble.
The directive nonetheless achieves some of the goals of the DREAM Act, a plan that would establish a path to citizenship for immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children if they attend college or serve in the military. The long-sought legislation once enjoyed bipartisan support — it was co-written and co-sponsored by Republican lawmakers including Sens. Orrin Hatch, John McCain and Richard Lugar. As President Obama attempted to move on the bill, however, it was abandoned by the Republican Party altogether, opposed even by GOP lawmakers who used to champion it. After a Republican filibuster, the bill died in 2010.
"It makes no sense to expel these young people who want to staff our labs or start new businesses or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians," Obama said on Friday, going on to clarify the limitations of the DHS directive. "This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely, while giving a degree of relief to talented, driven, patriotic young people."
Reacting to the announcement, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) speculated that suspending deportations of immigrants who would have been eligible under the DREAM Act may be a conspiracy to give them the right to vote. "Is this one of those backdoor opportunities to allow people in the next five months to get the opportunity to vote?" he asked on Fox News on Friday. "Why have we have not allowed a national debate on this issue to really get a sense about what the American people feel?"
Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa) said that he plans to sue the Obama administration to stop the plan's implementation, arguing on Mike Huckabee's radio show that such a decision should have been made through congressional action.
Yet Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano says that using "prosecutorial discretion" in deportation cases is appropriate. "Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner. They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case," Napolitano wrote in a memo. "Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Indeed, many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways. Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
Last year The Root profiled some of the approximately 400,000 black immigrants with undocumented status, including Tolu Olubunmi, a young woman who was brought to the U.S. from Nigeria when she was 14. "People always say, 'Get in line.' Well, the DREAM Act creates a line," said Olubunmi, who had just come out of the shadows as undocumented when The Root interviewed her about the bill. "These students are saying that they will do whatever they have to, if it's going to college or serving in the military. They are just asking for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the country they love."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.