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Republicans, Democrats spar on allowing illegal immigrants with criminal pasts to avoid deportation

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FILE: An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent enters a restaurant to remove evidence in Cheektowaga, N.Y.AP

Democrats and Republicans sparred Saturday over the part of President Obama's executive order on illegal immigration that allows some applicants to avoid deportation despite having committed crimes.

The section at issue states in part that young illegal immigrants eligible for the program must have “not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.”

The language leaves open the door for some illegal immigrants with misdemeanor records to stay. 

The first news reports on the change stated those eligible could have no criminal history, but documents released later in the day showed that to be incorrect.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the first administration official to announce the plan, said Friday morning the policy change was an attempt to keep the agency’s enforcement resources focused on removing the most potentially dangerous illegal immigrants, including felons and repeat offenders.

She also attempted to assure Americans by saying those eligible under the program must apply for a two-year suspension of deportation and a work visa, after which they can reapply for renewal. She also said each applicant would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here,” she said.

Still, the attempt a reassuring the public that those eligible, included illegal immigrants as old as 30, did not satisfy Arizona GOP Rep. David Schweikert.

“I am extremely disappointed by this election year executive order for several reasons,” he said Saturday.

Schweikert called the order backdoor amnesty full of unintended consequences that puts hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants ahead of millions of unemployed Americans in the workforce.

He also said called applicants being eligible despite having a criminal record “the latest facet of the plan, that we are just discovering … seriously dangerous and inexcusable.”  

The Department of Homeland Securtity’s 8-page memo on the major, election-year policy change attempts to clarify several anticipated questions on criminal history, including what qualifies as a “significant misdemeanor.”

The response states it part: “A federal, state, or local criminal offense punishable by no more than one year of imprisonment or even no imprisonment that involves: violence, threats, or assault, sexual abuse, larceny, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the unlawful possession or use of a firearm, drug distribution or trafficking, or unlawful possession of drugs.”

A senior Capitol Hill Democratic staffer told FoxNews.com on Saturday the executive order essential follows what has always been U.S. immigration policy.

“It pretty clear in most immigration laws that you want to weed out the most serious criminals,” he said. “The president wants to weed them out. This is for low-priority offenders.”

The staffer pointed out the guidelines are similar to those in the DREAM Act, the Democrat-sponsored immigration reform legislation stuck on Capitol Hill.

He also argued applicants will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, which could result in a person being disqualified for one serious offense, and somebody being accepted with four, less-serious misdemeanors.

The change is expected to impact roughly 800,000 illegal immigrants.

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.