Some young illegal immigrants living in the United States will be eligible for a reprieve from federal prosecution, according to a Friday announcement by the Obama administration.
It's a move ripe with election year politics as both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney ramp up efforts to woo Hispanic voters ahead of the November presidential election.
Republicans have made hay out of the fact that Obama promised comprehensive immigration reform would be one of his top priorities in the White House and yet, in reality, he prioritized healthcare legislation instead. They say he never delivered for Latinos.
Friday's announcement, made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, is certainly aimed at placating disappointed Hispanic voters but also continues an effort her agency has made to change America's deportation priorities.
Napolitano said the move is "consistent with our existing use of prosecutorial discretion" despite cries from some conservatives that it is unconstitutional.
Immigrants who were brought to the United States before the age of 16, who have lived here for at least five years, are in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or were honorably discharged from the military and are younger than 30 are eligible for the "deferred action," she said during a conference call with reporters. In addition to deferred action on deportation, many young illegal immigrants would be eligible for work permits.
Verifiable documentation must be provided, and those with felonies or extensive criminal records are not eligible.
"Over the past three years, the administration has undertaken an unprecedented effort to transform our nation's immigration enforcement system into one that focuses on public safety, border security, and on the integrity of the immigration system," Napolitano said.
The Obama administration, which has already deported more illegal immigrants than did the George W. Bush administration, has focused its efforts on those who pose a danger to national security, are a risk to public safety, or those with serious or multiple criminal convictions, she said.
About 90 percent of last year's deportations applied to those kinds of illegal immigrants, Napolitano said. Immigrations enforcement officials were also given the discretion to close low-priority cases last year so they could focus resources on dangerous individuals.
Napolitano was also quick to point out that this deferred action, which would initially be for a period of two years, would "not provide permanent lawful status or start them on a pathway to citizenship" and "is well within the framework of our existing laws."
"This grant of deferred action is not immunity. It is not amnesty," she said. "It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not entering the legal system. It will help us continue to streamline immigration enforcement."
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, said on CNN on Friday that the move amounted to a "first step towards amnesty."
"I'm just more concerned about the politics of this," he said. But, he added, if the president's move prompts Congress to move forward with an immigration reform plan, it's a good thing.
Arizona is one of several states to enact aggressive state policies on removing illegal immigrants because they feel the federal government has failed to adequately address the problem. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of Arizona's immigration law this summer.
The Obama administration has lent its support to a measure in Congress called the DREAM Act, which would create a path for citizenship for young illegal immigrants who meet similar conditions to the just-announced deferment action.
Romney, meanwhile, staked out one of the most conservative immigration stances of all during his Republican primary, calling for all illegal immigrants to return to their home countries before being eligible for U.S. citizenship. He's also said he opposes the DREAM Act or any type of amnesty.
A request for comment from the Romney campaign regarding the Obama administration's announcement was not immediately returned.
Steffen Schmidt, CNN Espanol analyst and political professor at Iowa State University, noting that Obama's immigration policies had been tougher than Bush's, says the move is already creating buzz in the Hispanic community.
"It's going to really mobilize people who were distressed that there was no alternative to harsher Republican policies," he says.
Schmidt adds that many in the Latino community were waiting for a such a sign from the Obama administration and that politically, the timing is very good.
Thanks to what is expected to remain an extremely close race, the turnout of groups such as Latinos, an ever-growing segment of the U.S. population, will likely be a key factor in the election's outcome.
- Read: Why Hispanic voters matter in 2012
- See a slideshow of cities with the largest Latino populations
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.