Two top senators on Wednesday told the Obama administration to stop deporting illegal immigrant students, saying they might soon be given legal status by Congress so deporting them now is unfair.
The call, by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, provides a test for how far the administration is willing to go unilaterally in halting deportations of illegal immigrations. As Congress gears up for debate over whether to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, immigrant-rights groups said they are closely watching to see how President Obama responds.
Mr. Durbin and Mr. Lugar asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to use what amounts to prosecutorial discretion and grant "deferred action" to illegal immigrant students who would meet the criteria of a bill, known as the Dream Act, the two men have written to grant them eventual legal status.
"Though they are technically out of status, Dream Act students should not be removed from the United States," the senators wrote.
The senators said not many illegal immigrant students are actually placed in deportation proceedings, but said the ad hoc nature of the decisions begs for a broad policy.
Clark Stevens, a spokesman for Homeland Security, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement already uses discretion on a case-by-case basis, but he said the issue underscores why Mr. Obama wants to see Congress pass a legalization bill.
Cases like this illustrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform. We are focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities while we continue to work with Congress to enact reform," Mr. Stevens said.
Still, the senators' demand does raise questions about how much authority the administration could have to stop deporting most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants altogether if Congress is not able to pass a bill this year to legalize them.
Immigrant-rights groups said the letter increases pressure on Mr. Obama to take action on his own. The groups also said it shows that bipartisan cooperation can happen on immigration, and said it was an encouraging sign for the chances of a broader legalization bill this year.
Mr. Lugar, though, told The Washington Times last month he has told Democrats he is not going to be working with them on such a broad bill this year, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been working on legislation, has sounded less optimistic in recent weeks.
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