Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Sunday refused to say whether he would revoke President Obama’s decision to categorically stop deporting young-adult illegal immigrants as the ramifications of the administration’s election-year move last week continued to reverberate.
Some Republicans in Congress have vowed to sue to force Mr. Obama to back down, saying his decision to stop deportations flies in the face of the law.
But the White House — which for the last three years had told those on both sides of the issue it didn’t have the power to categorically halt deportations for young adults said it now feels on solid legal ground.
“Our attorney, the Homeland Security attorneys, are absolutely confident this is within our authority to use some discretion,” White House political strategist David Plouffe told ABC’s “This Week” program, putting the move in the context of the progression the Obama administration has made over the past three years to expand its claims of prosecutorial discretion.
Friday’s reversal took everyone by surprise.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she would categorically stop deporting illegal immigrants under age 30 who were brought to the country before age 16, have been here for at least five years and have completed high school, earned an equivalency diploma or joined the U.S. military.
Those are similar to criteria contained in the Dream Act legislation that never passed Congress, but that would have granted a path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants under 30.
Estimates for those that would qualify range into the millions though Republicans say given the chances for fraud, it’s impossible to tell how many might make a claim.
The move doesn’t grant the illegal immigrants permanent legal status but does end their risk of being deported, and will likely earn many of them legal work rights.
It also puts Mr. Romney on the political defensive.
After taking a hard-line stance on immigration during the primary, including vowing to veto the Dream Act, the former Massachusetts governor said Sunday he will pursue a broader immigration solution but refused to say whether he would leave the nondeportation policy in place in the meantime.
He also said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program that Mr. Obama’s move was all about politics.
“The timing is pretty clear,” Mr. Romney said. “If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these children or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first 3½ years, not in his last few months.”
Indeed, for three years Mr. Obama and Ms. Napolitano have denied they had the authority they exercised Friday. They were even asked point-blank whether they had executive authority to halt deportations for students who would have been eligible for the Dream Act, and they said no.
“There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president,” Mr. Obama told Univision in a town-hall meeting in 2011.
On Friday, after he reversed himself, immigrant-rights groups congratulated him, but said they’d told him all along he could do it.
“We knew you could, Mr. President,” said Angelica Salas, director of a Los Angeles immigration rights group.
The administration says it’s not doing an about-face, saying it’s not unilaterally enacting the Dream Act because it can’t grant full legal status.
But that was not the question Mr. Obama was asked at the Univision town hall. Jorge Ramos, the veteran political journalist who ran the event, never mentioned the Dream Act, instead specifically asking whether Mr. Obama would “be able to stop deportations of the students.”
The Homeland Security Department last week declined to answer whether Ms. Napolitano had received a new legal opinion that changed her mind and convinced her she did, in fact, have this authority.
Some congressional Republicans have said Mr. Obama’s move oversteps his legal bounds, and a court challenge could be in the offing. And Mr. Obama’s own past statements will likely come into play.
A Homeland Security aide defended the decision, saying it’s the latest in a line of decisions about “prosecutorial discretion” the administration has made. Last year, Ms. Napolitano’s department issued guidance saying it would drop deportation cases against illegal immigrants who didn’t have major criminal backgrounds.
“This policy is an exercise of prosecutorial discretion designed to ensure that our immigration laws are enforced in a strong and sensible manner,” the aide said, adding that the new authority is still only “case-by-case.”
The Dream Act has failed several times in Congress. The most recent failure was during the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress, when it was blocked in the Senate on a bipartisan filibuster. Since then, support has deteriorated further.
But Democrats have reintroduced a version, and several Republicans are working on their own legislation.
Rep. David Rivera, Florida Republican, introduced a version several weeks ago that would grant a multitier path to citizenship to a much narrower category than the administration’s. His legislation would apply only to students who have graduated high school and are attending a four-year college, and they would only earn a path to citizenship if they earned a degree from the college.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who frequently is mentioned as a possible Romney running mate, is also working on a version.