WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says his plan to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will make the system "more fair, more efficient and more just."
The president says it "makes no sense to expel talented young people" who are essentially Americans. He says he was taking the action in the absence of action by Congress "to fix our broken system."
Jose Torres-Don, 24, and Viridiana Martinez, 25, represent the group the move would help. Both came to the U.S. decades ago. Torres-Don went to the University of Texas, and he came to North Carolina in search of work but has been unable to find a job. Martinez moved to Sanford with her family when she was seven.
Both have decided to face up to their undocumented status.
"I'm not afraid anymore and I'm willing to face the law," Martinez said. "This is who I am. This is what I look like. I cry. I bleed. I have feelings. I want to better my life."
Obama's election-year initiative should help him among Hispanic voters. It will begin granting young immigrants work permits, affecting as many as 800,000 young people who have lived in fear of deportation.
But Torres-Don and Martinez are skeptical about the initiative's application. They understand that, as a policy directive, it means each person will be treated on a case-by-case basis.
"We know from our experiences in North Carolina that there's a big difference between what the Obama administration says and what local offices actually implement," Torres-Don said.
The policy change bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, a long-sought but never enacted plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or join the military.
The extraordinary step comes one week before Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando, Fla.
The change swiftly drew an outcry from Republicans accusing Obama of circumventing Congress in an effort to boost his political standing. GOP lawmakers insist that previous uses of prosecutorial discretion in deportations amount to back-door amnesty by the administration.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr said, "I have always said that what we need is comprehensive immigration reform, and the president promised that he would act on this when he was campaigning four years ago.
"Unfortunately he has offered no leadership on this issue and instead has chosen to bypass Congress and pick and choose which laws he is willing to uphold and which ones he is willing to ignore. While I am hopeful we can achieve reform of our immigration laws, we must enforce the laws on the books, and I do not support granting amnesty to those who are here illegally."
"President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Republicans including Obama's GOP challenger Mitt Romney say they want tighter border security measures before they will consider changes in immigration law. Romney opposes offering legal status to illegal immigrants who attend college but has said he would do so for those who serve in the armed forces.
A man in the Rose Garden asked Obama while he was speaking, "Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?" Obama responded, "This is the right thing to do."
The change also comes a year after the administration announced plans to focus on deporting serious criminals, immigrants who pose threats to public safety and national security, and serious immigration law violators.
Under the plan, immigrants whose deportation cases are pending in immigration court will have to prove their eligibility for a reprieve to ICE, which will begin dealing with such cases in 60 days. Any immigrant who already has a deportation order and those who never have been encountered by immigration authorities will deal with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The exact details of how the program will work, including how much immigrants will have to pay to apply and what proof they will need, still are being worked out.
The administration officials stopped short of calling the change an administrative DREAM Act — the name is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — but the qualifications meet those laid out in a 2010 version that failed in the Senate after passing in the House. They said the DREAM Act, in some form, and comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system remained an administration priority.
Illegal immigrant children won't be eligible to apply for the deportation waiver until they turn 16, but the officials said younger children won't be deported, either.
"The reality is, we are at risk of being removed from this country and taken away from our families at any point," Martinez said.