The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will renew the non-deportation for young adult illegal immigrants, meaning the more than 560,000 so-called "Dreamers" in the program can continue living and working in the U.S. with no fear of deportation.
"Despite the acrimony and partisanship that now exists in Washington, almost all of us agree that a child who crossed our border illegally with a parent, or in search of a parent or a better life, was not making an adult choice to break our laws, and should be treated differently than adult law-breakers," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in announcing the program's renewal for another two years.
Lauded by immigrant rights groups as a humanitarian gesture, the program, which the government termed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, has been wildly popular with Hispanic voters, and polls show it receives generally good marks with the public at large.
Critics, however, call it President Obama's "mini-amnesty" program and say it is contributing to a new surge in illegal immigration — including driving up the number of young children crossing the border alone. Homeland Security officials have termed that a crisis.
Those on both sides view DACA as a trial run for a broader legalization program — whether done by executive action or by law, if Congress can agree on something.
To qualify under DACA, immigrants had to have been in the U.S. before age 16, had to have been 30 or younger as of June 15, 2012, and had to prove some degree of educational attainment. Applicants were also put through a background check in an effort to weed out those with serious criminal charges on their records.
More than 96 percent of those who have gone through the DACA process have been approved, which some analysts say shows how little screening is done. The program's backers, though, say that shows just how prepared and deserving this population is.
Under the program, when Dreamers encounter authorities they can show papers proving they are not going to be deported.
The program faces a legal challenge. A group of immigration agents has sued to halt the program and other non-deportation directives, arguing they are required by law to arrest any illegal immigrants they encounter.
A federal judge in Texas ruled that the agents were likely correct — but also ruled that the case was beyond his jurisdiction. The agents have appealed.
Mr. Obama announced the program in June 2012, in the middle of his re-election campaign, as he was struggling to maintain support among Hispanic voters. Mr. Obama envisioned the program lasting for two years, but left open the possibility that it could be renewed.
The first applications were filed in August 2012, were approved a month later and will begin to expire later this year.
In addition to the more than 560,000 applications that have been approved, nearly 70,000 more remain in the pipeline, according to the latest statistics from the end of March.
Heading into this year's congressional elections, many Democrats have pleaded with Mr. Obama to expand the program to include illegal immigrant parents of Dreamers.
"The Obama Administration should build on this program's successes and expand DACA to include our parents and others who remain targets for deportation," said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream. "As we celebrate the futures that Dreamers now enjoy through DACA, we will keep fighting until our entire families can share in the opportunities that come through a just and humane immigration policy."
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