Young undocumented immigrants get reprieve under new U.S. government policy

President Barack Obama shook up the political debate with a major election year announcement on undocumented immigrants.

Under a new plan announced in a statement from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, children brought to the United States before their 16th birthday, who have lived in the country for at least five years, had no criminal history and are in high school, have finished high school or have served in the military, will no longer be deported and will be eligible to apply for work authorization.

The new policy also stipulates that they must apply for work authorization before turning 30.

While the policy doesn’t create a path to citizenship, it does mimic many of the other features of the so-called DREAM Act, which would have awarded citizenship to undocumented immigrants who graduated from college or served in the military.

“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” Napolitano said in the statement. “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.”

The new proposal was first revealed in an article by the Associated Press Friday morning.

Under the new Homeland Security policy, undocumented immigrants who meet the department’s new standards will be able to apply for an unlimited number of two-year work authorizations.

“Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights,” Homeland Security said in its statement.

According to the Associated Press, the decision by the Obama administration to enact this provision will setup a clear distinction between the president and his election challenger, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.

Romney, for his part, has opposed the DREAM Act, but supports giving citizenship to undocumented immigrants who serve in the military. Obama, according to various reports, has pledged to Latino leaders that he’ll continue to press for the full DREAM Act, which will create a path to citizenship for those youth brought to the country by their parents.

But his singular action Friday emphasizes the reality: no such action is likely so long as Republicans maintain control of at least one house of Congress.

The proposal is similar to a proposal offered by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as an alternative to passing the full DREAM Act, the AP said.

Hispanic voters are expected to be critical to Obama’s re-election efforts, especially in key swing states like Florida and Colorado. While they’ve supported Obama by wide margins, many have also been dismayed by his inability to get comprehensive immigration reform.

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