Students in Oakland, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area and country gathered Friday morning to cautiously cheer the news that the Obama administration will stop deporting younger immigrants, and grant them work permits.
The policy means that there will no longer be the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were: brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the U.S. for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or who have served in the military. The new policy will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new policy is effective immediately, although she added that this is not a permanent solution because it does not offer immunity or amnesty.
In Oakland, young people congregated at the Obama campaign headquarters on Telegraph Avenue to express their happiness about the change, but also their skepticism. Many undocumented people said they wanted to speak to lawyers to see if the policy really encompassed them.
"We are very cautious about today's announcement," said a woman, who would only identify herself as Karin, outside of the Oakland campaign office. "We will stay inside the Obama for America office until we contact all of these people whose cases we are working on" and make sure that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has closed their cases.
Obama's change bypasses Congress and achieves, in part, the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, a plan that was never enacted to create a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or join the military.
The policy will not lead toward citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods. It closely mirrors a proposal being drafted by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential vice presidential running mate for Romney, as an alternative to the DREAM Act. Rubio did not criticize the administration's initiative Friday but said it would make it harder to achieve a permanent solution.
Disqualified from application would be felons, immigrants convicted of violent crimes, and repeat offenders of immigration law. Also ineligible would be those convicted of a significant misdemeanor offense or more than one misdemeanor, or those who for some other reason pose a security or safety threat.
Laura Lopez is a 24-year-old Napa woman who was born in Mexico. She is excited about the new policy.
"I’m a waitress," she said. "I have a degree from the University of California that I’ve been waiting to use. And I’m just really happy I’ll have an opportunity to apply for a job I really want to do.”
Not surprisingly, most Republicans did not like the news. The GOP accused Obama of circumventing Congress for his own political gain.
"President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
But Democrats, including state Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco, issued a statement in support of the policy change:
“I commend President Barack Obama for recognizing that the only home many undocumented children know is here in the United States. This is a great first step towards comprehensive immigration reform. This change is not only the right moral decision; it is also good for America culturally and economically. I urge the Administration to continue to move in this direction on immigration. Our immigration policy should ensure security while also keeping families together and allowing the American Dream to become a reality for all those who seek it.”
As for the timing of the announcement, the change comes one week before Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando, Fla.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is scheduled to speak to the group on Thursday. Romney has said he 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-432-4758 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter.com/ljfernandez.