Absent an actual Dream Act, Obama relaxes deportation requirements

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With the Dream Act indefinitely stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, President Obama announced this morning that his administration would relax the standards governoing deporations.

“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a press release from the White House. “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 change applies to non-citizens who were brought to the United States before their 16th birthday and are not yet 30 years old, and who have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least 5 years, have no criminal history, and have completed high school or received a G.E.D., or served in the military. 

The new policy would not confer citizenship, but would allow for "deferred action" on deportation, allowing those immigrants to live and work without the fear of deportation.

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Latino leaders have long criticized the administration's Secure Communities program, which has deported immigrants in record numbers (though the White House contends its focus on policing the borders has inflated those numbers). Critics have also accused the administration of being inconsistent in its application of deportation policies for non-criminals.

There is, of course, an unignorable election-year context here: Obama enjoys a sizable lead over Mitt Romney among Latino voters, though it's unclear how motivated that segment of the base planned to be on Obama's behalf. Last week, the New York Times reported that an administration review that was expected to defer some deportations had actually done little to staunch the tide. The paper called it a "jarring disappointment" to a "frustrated" Hispanic electorate.

The new regulations roughly resemble an alternative to the Dream Act proposed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio is considered to be on a top contender to be Romney's running mate, in part for his perceived ability to shore up Latino support for Romney, who took a particularly tough stance on immigration during the Republican primary. Romney's local chairman has encouraged the candidate to pick Rubio, though Representative Jose Serrano told me last year that even Rubio couldn't overcome Republicans' "meanness" on the issue.

The move comes one week before Obama and Romney are each scheduled to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida.