Many undocumented immigrants -- including students and those with no criminal record -- will be allowed to stave off deportation and be allowed to work in the country legally under an administrative directive issued last Thursday.
This means that a new federal group will review 300,000 deportation cases with a focus on criminals.
"This case-by-case approach will enhance public safety," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a letter to Congress. "Immigration judges will be able to more swiftly adjudicate high-profile cases, such as those involving convicted felons."
Pro-immigrant groups have hailed the Obama administration for trying to help undocumented residents who have stayed out of trouble with the law, and to students who have discovered they were too young to know they were brought into the country without the proper documents.
"It makes no sense to spend our enforcement resources on these low-priority cases," said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs.
Not everyone has expressed satisfaction with the administration's tactic. Some conservatives have called the order "administrative amnesty" or 'backdoor amnesty."
"The Obama administration should enforce immigration laws, not look for ways to ignore them," said Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "The Obama administration should not pick and choose which laws to enforce."
Pro-immigrant supporters, like Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-New Jersey, welcomed the change but said there is still a need for comprehensive immigration reform.
"I hope the department will pursue additional initiatives to keep American families together by allowing immigrant spouses and children of U.S. citizens to apply for visas from within the United States based on an expanded and broad list of humanitarian factors," said Menéndez.
Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Illinois and a frequent critic of the Obama administration for not pushing hard enough on immigration reform, was pleased with Thursday's announcement.
"This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for adn that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies," said Gutiérrez. "Today is a victory not just for immigrants but for the American people as a whole because it makes no sense to deport DREAM Act students adn others who can make great contributions to América and pose no threat."
Congressman Charles A. González, D-Texas and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said it was essential for the federal government to devote its resources "to apprehending, prosecuting and deporting individuals that pose a danger to our communities."
"While this adminsitration's change is not a panacea for all our nation's immigration problems, it's a positive step forward and will, I hope, serve as a guidepost to set the tone of continuing immigration discussions."
Other pro-immigrant advocates said the administrative order has caused some confusion in immigrant communities where unscrupulous people have sought to benefit financially.
"We are already hearing about cases where individuals are trying to offer work permits or legalization for a cost," said Angélica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Ángeles (CHIRLA). "People should beware. Don't pay for any information!"
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