U.S. To Stop Deporting Some Young Illegal Immigrants

The Obama administration announced Friday morning that it would offer immunity and work permits to some young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives.

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The Obama administration is announcing a major change in immigration policy this morning. It affects people who are brought to the U.S. as children illegally. Beginning immediately, these young people can avoid deportation and will be allowed to work in this country. The move could affect as many as 800,000 undocumented residents 30 years old or younger.

Joining us now to talk about the move is NPR's Scott Horsley. He's at the White House. And Scott, who exactly is affected?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Renee, to be eligible for this program, you have to have come to the U.S. when you were under 16. You have to have lived here continuously for the last five years. You can be in school, have graduated from school or received your GED, or be a military veteran. And, in addition, to be eligible, you must not have been convicted of a felony or multiple or significant misdemeanors, or otherwise somehow pose a threat to national security or public safety. The administration's saying, as you said, that could be as many as 800,000 people.

MONTAGNE: And can the president make this move on his own, or does he need approval from Congress?

HORSLEY: Well, the administration is describing this as an exercise in prosecutorial discretion - that is, something that they can do on their own. Now, they're stressing that this is not a program that gives these young people permanent legal status, nor a path to permanent legal status, nor the politically freighted amnesty. But these folks could be allowed to stay in the country for two years and work. And then that period of time when they're exempt from deportation could be extended.

Now, the administration is saying this is not a blanket policy. The cases still have to be reviewed one by one. But they're suggesting that they will be using this prosecutory discretion more widely than they have in the past in order to better focus their resources on illegal immigrants who do pose some threat to safety or security in this country.

MONTAGNE: And this, of course, has obvious political implications. President Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, they're both scheduled to speak next week to large gatherings of Latino elected officials.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. And, of course, Latino voters were a big part of President Obama's winning coalition four years ago, and he badly needs their support again if he's to win in November.

Some Latinos have voiced dismay; that under this president, the deportation of illegal immigrants has actually gone up. And a lot of Latino activists have been calling, for years, for the administration to do something like this, even as they wait for a more comprehensive solution or overhaul of immigration laws to come through Congress. So this move could be a political plus for the president with Latino voters.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, took a very hard line against illegal immigration during the Republican primaries. You might remember that he was very critical of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants in that state to pay in-state tuition. So Romney is sure to be critical of this policy move, even as he tries to tack to the center, and position himself as at least somewhat less antagonistic to Latino voters.

MONTAGNE: And Scott, is the president expected to come out and speak about this himself?

HORSLEY: Yes. Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, announced the new policy. But Mr. Obama himself will address the subject in the White House Rose Garden this afternoon.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley, talking to us from the White House. Thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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