President Barack Obama said yesterday that he is lifting the threat of deportation from young illegal immigrants in the United States who have completed their educations or served in the US military, a move that should solidify support for him among Hispanic voters in key swing states this November such as Florida and Arizona.
The surprise announcement will scramble the lines of the deeply contentious debate over immigration policy in the run-up to the presidential election. While Mr Obama is far more popular among Latinos than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, he has nonetheless disappointed them by failing to push immigration reform through Congress and by overseeing a level of enforced deportations not seen since the Fifties.
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purpose are Americans, have been raised as Americans, understand themselves as part of this country," Mr Obama said in the Rose Garden, adding that he would be "lifting the shadow of deportation from these young people". Mr Obama showed a flash of anger after being heckled by an individual with a temporary press pass.
It is the first time that a president has essentially said that immigrants who were brought into the country illegally can nonetheless stay without harassment and work freely. He insisted it did not mean "amnesty" for the roughly 800,000 young people who will be affected by it. He said the US Congress should still act to pass long-term reform.
For Mr Romney, the manoeuvre creates a headache. To his right he has conservatives who are demanding that he take an even tougher line on immigration than he has already, many of whom were quick last night to condemn Mr Obama's initiative. To do so, however, would risk killing off whatever little Hispanic support he may have.
Sidelined to an extent meanwhile, is Senator Marco Rubio, a possible vice- presidential pick for the Republicans, who had been working on draft legislation for Congress that would have looked similar to the order issued by Mr Obama yesterday. Earlier efforts by Democrats to push through something called the Dream Act that would have offered a legal path for young illegal immigrants to stay ended in failure.
The issue made the front cover of Time magazine this week which featured a crowd of immigrants including Jose Antonio Vargas, a Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning, Filipino journalist. It revealed that in June 2011 he was in the United States illegally.
Part of the anger among conservatives on Capitol Hill will stem from Mr Obama bypassing Congress to introduce these changes. "President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Representative Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said.
The White House is essentially telling the judiciary to defer enforcing the existing laws for a pool of young people who were brought into the US illegally before the age of 16 and are now younger than 30.
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