WASHINGTON – Arizona officials reacted swiftly, and predictably, to Friday’s announcement that the Department Homeland Security will exercise “discretion” when deciding whether to deport younger, low-risk undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
The policy, announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and quickly backed by President Barack Obama, would give such immigrants the opportunity to apply for a two-year deportation deferment and a get two-year work visa.
Obama said the policy is “not amnesty … not immunity” but simply the “right thing to do” for young people in those circumstances.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” he said.
Arizona Democrats praised the move as “long overdue” and a step in the right direction. But critics quickly jumped on the plan, which they said was little more than a “backdoor amnesty plan” and a politically motivated, pre-emptive strike in advance of an expected Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law.
“It doesn’t take a cynic to recognize this action for what it is: blatant political pandering by a president desperate to shore up his political base,” said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in a statement Friday.
Napolitano said the policy takes effect immediately and applies to individuals currently in deportation proceedings as well as any future cases. She said the policy was sensible and allowed the department to put its resources where they are more urgently needed.
The policy applies to those who are less than 30 years old who can prove that they arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday and have been living here continuously for at least the last five years. They must be in high school, or have graduated, or have an honorable discharge from the military.
They cannot have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor, or pose any threat to public safety.
Immigrants who meet the criteria can apply for a two-year deferment of their deportation, which Homeland Security will consider approving on a case-by-case basis. If they are given a deferral, they can also apply for a two-year work visa, with no guarantees.
The language mirrors that of the DREAM Act, which has failed repeatedly in Congress. The DREAM – Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – Act targeted the same group of young immigrants, those brought here by their parents. But it would have given those immigrants a route to citizenship, something the new Homeland Security policy does not.
Obama invoked the DREAM Act Friday, but said partisan squabbling has blocked the bill.
“The need hasn’t changed. It’s still the right thing to do,” he said of the act. “The only thing that has changed, apparently, was the politics.”
But Republicans said it was Obama playing politics now.
“I find it interesting that after promising to enact comprehensive reform in the first year of his presidency, the president chose to make this announcement in the middle of his heated re-election campaign,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a prepared statement.
He said the president should “reach out to Congress and propose legislation on this important issue” instead of unilaterally deciding the issue.
Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale, called the policy a “backdoor amnesty plan” that would increase the competition faced by unemployed Arizonans who are trying to find work.
The state’s unemployment rate stood at 8.2 percent in May, with more than 247,000 people out of a job, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, praised the policy, even though he said it is not a permanent solution to the immigration problem.
“It’s a major step in the right direction,” said Grijalva, who called it a wonderful day for “millions who believe in fairness.”
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, challenged the suggestion that the policy would harm unemployed citizens by giving work visas to undocumented immigrants. It could do the reverse, he said, by forcing “unscrupulous employers” who would otherwise exploit young, undocumented workers to hire legal workers instead.
“So this may very well be one of the better things that this administration can do for the economy in terms of just … leveling the playing field within the job market,” Noorani said.
He said the promise of a deferment alone is worthwhile for those young immigrants who live in fear of deportation, even if a work visa isn’t granted.
“There is a peace that comes with knowing that you cannot be deported,” Noorani said.