WASHINGTON – A Muslim civil rights group has applauded President Barack Obama’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and be safe from deportation.
"Young people who have lived in America as contributing members of society should have an opportunity to come out of the shadows by legalizing their status,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in an online statement on Friday, June 16.
“This executive order will provide at least some relief for those whose sole wish is to live freely and openly in the only country they know."
In a surprise move on Friday, Obama said his administration would stop deporting law-abiding, undocumented young adults who were brought to the US as children and would instead grant them work permits.
He said the directive, bound to boost his support among Latino voters in battleground states, would "mend our nation's immigration policy to make it more fair, more efficient and more just."
"These are young people who study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, are friends with our kids and pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said.
"They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
Obama maintained that the move "is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix," but added, "This is the right thing to do."
Up to 800,000 are to be eligible for the scheme, which is open to those aged 30 or under who have been in the country five years, are in school or are military veterans, and have no felony convictions.
There are up to 11 million illegal migrants in the US, up to two million of whom are young people brought in by their parents, often as babies, according to estimates by migration groups.
The order directly ushered in some parts of the Dream Act, a plan that went further by offering a path to citizen-ship to young migrants, which was blocked by Republicans in Congress in 2010.
The proposed law, which the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged to veto, is a key priority for many Latino voters, whose ballots could prove decisive in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada in November's presidential election.
Obama's move was welcomed by America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform pressure group, which described the decision as "the biggest news on immigration in 25 years."
It was cautiously welcomed by Juan Escalante, a spokesman for DREAM Activist, a Florida-based lobby group.
"It's an exciting day, but there are reasons for skepticism," he told Vancouver Sun.
Viridiana Hernandez, a 21-year-old undocumented immigrant in Arizona, said she planned to apply for a work permit, which can be renewed every two years.
"It is a huge step forward and a relief for students like me," she said.
Republicans, however, were furious at being circumvented, accusing Obama playing politics now.
“I find it interesting that after promising to enact comprehensive reform in the first year of his presidency, the president chose to make this announcement in the middle of his heated re-election campaign,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a prepared statement.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida claimed the order would wreck attempts to comprehensively overhaul illegal immigration.
"By once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one," he said.
Steve King, a Republican congressman for Iowa, pledged to sue the Obama administration to prevent the directive from being enforced.
Yet, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, challenged the suggestion that the policy would harm unemployed citizens by giving work visas to undocumented immigrants.
It could do the reverse, he said, by forcing “unscrupulous employers” who would otherwise exploit young, undocumented workers to hire legal workers instead.
“So this may very well be one of the better things that this administration can do for the economy in terms of just … leveling the playing field within the job market,” Noorani said, the News Herald reported.
He said the promise of a deferment alone is worthwhile for those young immigrants who live in fear of deportation, even if a work visa isn’t granted.
“There is a peace that comes with knowing that you cannot be deported,” Noorani said.
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