President Obama said Friday the United States will stop deporting hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants and give them work permits, a move praised fellow Democrats but criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill who said the administration has side-stepped the country’s legislative process.
The executive order will apply to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 and are younger than 30. They also must have no major criminal offenses, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have graduated from a U.S. high school or have earned a GED, or served in the military.
Individuals who have been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, or three or more other misdemeanor offenses not occurring on the same date and not arising out of the same act, omission, or scheme of misconduct are not eligible to be considered for deferred action under the new process.
“These are young people who study in our schools and play on our playgrounds,” the president said. “They are Americans in every single way but one – on paper.”
Those now eligible also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.
The change is expected to impact roughly 800,000 illegal immigrants.
The election-year announcement was met with surprise and question by several GOP lawmakers.
“This is another example of executive overreach,” Florida GOP Rep. Allen West told Fox News.
West said he just learned about the policy change Friday morning and that such a move should have come through legislation on Capitol Hill where it could be debated.
“That’s how we do business in the United States,” said West, R; Fla.
New York GOP Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, vowed an “immediate review" into the possibility that the Department Of Homeland Security will direct U.S. Border Patrol agents to conduct selective enforcement.
GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the president's order makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult.
"If I'm elected president, we'll do our best to have the long-term solution," he said.
Obama suggested he ordered the policy change because Capitol Hill Republicans have blocked the so-called DREAM Act, buts said the lawmakers still have time to pass such legislation.
“I’ve said this time and again to Congress,” the president said at the Rose Garden press conference. “Send me the DREAM Act, put it on my desk, and I’ll sign it.”
In urging Congress to pass the legislation, the president said his change was “stop gap” and not “a permanent fix.”
The president also made clear he change was not amnesty, immunity or a path to citizenship.
The policy is similar to one by Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in that it is an alternative to the DREAM Act. However, the first-term senator did not support the president’s order.
“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long term problem,” Rubio said. “And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long term one.”
The president was briefly interrupted by a reporter who asked: "Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over Americans?"
Obama sternly told the reporter – identified as Neil Munro of The Daily Caller – not to interrupt.
“Excuse me, sir, but it’s not time for questions," Obama responded.
“Are you going to take questions?” Munro asked.
“Not while I’m speaking.” Obama said.
The reporter later said he though the president was finished talking.
Earlier in the day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the change takes effect immediately and is needed to ensure enforcement resources are not expended on “low-priority cases.”
“Young people brought to U.S. by no fault of their own and meet several criteria no longer are removed from country or entered into removal proceedings,” Napolitano said in a conference call with reporters.
The policy change was reported first by the Associated Press.
The move comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida.
While Obama has support from a majority of Hispanic voters, Latino enthusiasm for the president has been tempered by the slow economic recovery, his inability to win congressional support for a broad overhaul of immigration laws and by his administration's aggressive deportation policy.
Romney and many Republican lawmakers want tighter border security measures before considering changes in immigration law. Romney opposes offering legal status to illegal immigrants who attend college but has said he would do so for those who serve in the armed forces.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent. But his administration's deportation policies have come under fire, and Latino leaders have raised the subject in private meetings with the president. In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is expected to deport about 400,000 this year.
Under the administration’s plan, immigrants whose deportation cases are pending in immigration court will have to prove their eligibility for a reprieve to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will begin dealing with such cases in 60 days. Any immigrant who already has a deportation order and those who never have been encountered by immigration authorities will deal with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Last year, Napolitano announced plans to review about 300,000 pending deportation cases and indefinitely suspend those that didn't meet department priorities. So far, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reviewed more than 232,000 cases and decided to stop working on about 20,000. About 4,000 of those 20,000 have opted to keep fighting in court to stay in the United States legally. For the people who opted to close their cases, work permits are not guaranteed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.