US & Canada

Will a new immigration policy get Latinos to the polls?

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden on 15 June 2012
Image caption Mr Obama called the move "good for America's economy... and it's the right thing to do"

President Obama's decision to halt the deportation of young undocumented immigrants has generated a wave of positive reactions from the Latino community in the US and from advocates of immigration reform.

His critics, however, accuse the president of ignoring Congress by using "prosecutorial discretion" - his executive prerogative - to implement the measure. They also say it is a strategic move in his bid for re-election.

The initiative addresses one of the most sensitive aspects of the immigration issue: what to do with the children who were brought in illegally by their parents.

The measure allows undocumented youths between the ages of 16-30 who have been in the country for at least five consecutive years to remain in the country and apply for work permits. It is estimated to affect up to 800,000 people.

"This is great news," said Clarissa Martinez, of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy organisation in the US. "It is the correct use of prosecutorial discretion in light of the inaction from Congress to approve a comprehensive immigration reform."

Prosecutorial discretion is the executive's prerogative to apply policies without a debate or approval from the legislative branch. The new policy reflects part of a bill that has been deadlocked in Congress for years - the so-called Dream Act that aimed to provide young people brought to the US as minors with a path towards US citizenship.

The move definitely re-energises what, until recently, was a lacklustre campaign and will make his Republican rival Mitt Romney pay attention to the immigration issue in one way or another.

Hispanics are a demographic group considered crucial for success in the upcoming presidential election and with whom Mr Romney has had difficulties connecting.

'Desperation move'

At one point there was bi-partisan backing for immigration reform, but changes in the composition of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the emergence of the right-wing Tea Party have sapped support and energy for the measures.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Center for Immigration Policy (IPC), says the Obama administration realised how many resources were being wasted in processing the deportation of thousands of people who never represented any threat to the country.

"The thinking of the government evolved to recognise that it had to take bolder steps in this immigration issue," Ms Giovagnoli says. "This is the perfect and justifiable moment to struggle on this behalf."

She says that with the Supreme Court set to rule on whether individual states can apply their own harsh immigration laws, Mr Obama's new policy is indispensable for immigrants.

Nevertheless, some believe that the president has taken the most explicit step yet in ignoring the constitutional functions of Congress.

"I don't think it's too much to describe this as a lawless act," Mark Krikorian from the Center of Immigration Studies in Washington says. "This is really making immigration law without the input from Congress."

Mr Krikorian points out that, in principle, he is not against the Dream Act, but any decision on immigration must be in consultation with the legislators.

"This administration is willing to do whatever it takes, even outside the law, to achieve its political objectives. It's a desperation move," he said.

Long-term fix?

The president's re-election strategy has had difficulties of late but today's announcement could very well revitalise his campaign.

And there have been plenty of positive reactions from the Democrats.

"There had clearly been some disappointment from the Latino electorate but this is going to fill them with enthusiasm," Maria Cardona, a strategist for the Democratic party, said.

"There are going to mobilise in numbers, not just themselves but their friends, acquaintances and families who are citizens who can vote and will support the president as they hadn't perhaps before."

Florida senator Marco Rubio, perhaps the Republican most in touch with Hispanics, had mentioned plans to introduced a modified version of the Dream Act, one that wouldn't alienate the conservative wing of the party.

"Obama's announcement has now taken away the wind from that potential bill and has complicated the Republicans' outlook in terms of Latinos," said Israel Ortega, Hispanic spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

Mr Rubio, for his part, issued a statement praising Mr Obama's measure as positive, but insisted that it was not a long-term fix.