WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States will stop deporting young law-abiding illegal immigrants who satisfy broad criteria, in a move that will be seen as a concession to Hispanic voters ahead of November’s election.
The scheme applies to minors brought to the United States before the age of 16, who are currently under 30, are in school or have graduated from high school, and have not been convicted of a felony, officials said.
President Barack Obama was due to make remarks on the decision, which could impact an estimated 800,000 people, in the White House Rose Garden later on Friday.
The move will likely be vigorously protested by conservative Republicans and be seen as a bid by the president to solidify his hold on the youth and Hispanic vote that could be critical in several swing states in November.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case.
“Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”
The decision will go some way to enshrining the goals of the DREAM Act, legislation backed by the White House that could lead to young illegal immigrants, brought to America by parents, gaining permanent residency.
The bill, opposed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and conservatives on Capitol Hill, has repeatedly failed to pass Congress and become law.
Napolitano anticipated Republican attacks on the decision on Friday during a conference call with reporters.
“It is not immunity, it is not amnesty, it is an exercise of discretion so these young people are not in the removal system,” Napolitano said.
“These young people do not represent a risk to public safety or security.”
Officials said that the move was not a permanent solution to the status of illegal immigrants but offered a two-year deferment of deportation proceedings, which could be extended by a further two years on expiry.
Though successful applicants to the scheme will get work permits, officials said it would not provide permanent legal status for young illegal immigrants nor would it provide a pathway to citizenship or legal permanent residence status.
Such moves would require an act of Congress.
There are 11.5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, and efforts to deal with their status — and provide a path to citizenship — have foundered in recent years over sharp political divisions.
Obama promised to work towards comprehensive immigration reform, a goal of the Hispanic community, when he ran for office but has made little progress. Now the president is pledging to tackle the issue if he wins a second term.
Mexicans represented 59 percent of all the undocumented migrants, followed by 14 percent from three Central American nations — six percent from El Salvador, five percent from Guatemala and three percent from Honduras.
China, the Philippines, India, South Korea and Vietnam all accounted for two percent each.