WASHINGTON  –– Repeating over and over that “it’s the right thing to do,” President Barack Obama announced June 15 that effective immediately, the U.S. will stop deporting certain young people who are in the country illegally because they were brought to the United States as minors.

immigrationA demonstrator in Los Angeles May 1 carries a sign that reads, “Legalization, yes. Deportation, no.” The Obama administration announced June 15 that it will relax enforcement of deportation rules for young people brought to the United States without legal status. (CNS photo/Jason Redmond, Reuters)The action – taken under existing law that allows for prosecutorial discretion – effectively creates an administrative version of the DREAM Act, legislation that enjoys popular, bipartisan support but has long languished in Congress.

“It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are American,” said Obama at a news conference from the White House Rose Garden. The new policy will make the system “more fair, more efficient and more just,” he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a memo announcing the change that immigration laws “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. Indeed, many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways. Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”

But Congress still needs to act, Obama said, and the sooner the better, because the changes are only a temporary fix.

As Obama described the order, eligible applicants between the ages of 15 and 30, who arrived in the U.S. by the age of 16 and have been here at least five years, will be able to request “temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”

“Let’s be clear,” Obama said. “This is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix. It is a temporary stopgap measure that allows us to focus our resources.”

The new approach will apply to people who complete high school or get a GED, or serve in the military. It will require background checks, no criminal history and other criteria. Deportation will be deferred for two-year renewable periods, during which time the applicants could obtain work permits.

Implementation may take up to 60 days, Napolitano’s memo said. Eligible immigrants who already are in deportation proceedings but do not have a final order to leave may immediately qualify for deferral of deportation, it said.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates as many as 1.4 million people might qualify. Other sources estimated the possible pool at 800,000.

Bills known as the DREAM Act– the acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – have been proposed regularly for years, aimed at addressing the problem of young people who were brought to the United States as children and lack legal immigration status. Such immigrants may have few, if any, ties to their homeland but also have no way of getting legal status in the U.S. without returning to countries that they don’t know and going through a years-long – or decades-long – wait to return legally.

They also are unable to work legally, to qualify for in-state college tuition or get driver’s licenses in most states, and to participate in many kinds of opportunities such as government-funded scholarships. Currently, they risk deportation if they come to the attention of immigration authorities.

While many supporters of the DREAM Act were jubilant, legal analysts were more cautious, noting that the new policy is possible because of prosecutorial discretion that has been available to immigration authorities for years.

Among those hailing the announcement was Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Migration Committee.

The young people to whom the action would apply “are bright, energetic, and eager to pursue their education and reach their full potential,” said Archbishop Gomez’s statement.

He echoed Obama’s point about needing more permanent action by Congress.

“The action by the president today is no substitute for enactment of the DREAM Act in Congress,” he said. Archbishop Gomez encouraged elected officials to make a bipartisan effort to “give these youth a path to citizenship and a chance to become Americans,” and to enact a comprehensive immigration reform law.

One law professor, Michael A. Olivas of the University of Houston, observed in an analysis that the action “shows new political will but does not change existing law or available discretion.”

Olivas noted that there’s little data about how similar discretion has been used under a review process begun last year for the entire category of undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records but are facing deportation. That program, known as the Morton Memo, encourages authorities to exercise their discretion to not deport such immigrants who have been in the U.S. for many years and who have strong family ties here.

Among advocates for the DREAM Act, the announcement was lauded.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the most ardent supporters of the DREAM Act in Congress, said the administration’s action “sets the ball in motion to break the gridlock and fix our laws so that people who live here can do so legally and on the books and people can come with visas instead of smugglers in the first place.”

“Today, the students are being protected,” Gutierrez said. “But we have to fix the system for their families and for the country once and for all.”

“This is huge,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund. “As a result of today’s decision, hundreds of thousands of young people who are American in all but paperwork will have the opportunity to live freely, work legally, and contribute to the country they love.” He added that “this expansion of existing policy is the only viable path to meaningful relief for Dreamers this year.”

The change will mean eligible students can apply for a Social Security number and seek work legally, Martha Arevalo, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, said in a statement released by the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities.

“They will also be able to apply for a driver’s license and be able to drive without the fear of being stopped by the police and potentially facing deportation proceedings,” she added. “Young immigrants are fully aware this is only an initial positive step in a long struggle to be recognized as full and productive members of American society.”

Olivas also noted that potential pitfalls remain. As highlighted by Time Magazine’s cover story June 25, many would-be DREAM Act applicants “have outed themselves, hoping to gain status, putting themselves and their undocumented parents and siblings at risk.” The discretionary program may do little to improve their status, he said.

And in states that bar undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public colleges, students may have little to gain from getting the discretionary legal status, he added.

“If the DREAM Act itself were to be enacted tomorrow by Congress, states would still have to pass laws to grant tuition and financial aid to these students,” Olivas said.