From The New York Times
decided last week on a major policy shift to stop deportations of young illegal immigrants after administration officials saw that he was losing the initiative to Republicans on an issue he had long championed and that he was alienating the Latino voters who may be pivotal to his re-election bid.
In recent weeks, the White House faced intense pressure from some of its closest allies — their voices often raised in frustration — to provide some relief for immigrant communities. The urging came from Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top two Democrats in the Senate, and the Hispanic caucus in the House of Representatives, as well as Latino and immigrant leaders across the country.
Bleak figures reported early this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that a yearlong program designed to shift enforcement away from illegal immigrants who pose no security risk was not producing results, with only about 500 young students nationwide spared from deportation.
And last week, students without immigration
papers started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes
at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities, saying that despite his promises, the president was continuing to deport immigrants like them.
After three years of record deportation numbers and cautious moves on other immigration policies, Mr. Obama finally used his executive authority in a sweeping way that surprised even his supporters, ending deportations for at least 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children.
An important change, administration officials said, came from the Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano
, who approached the White House in mid-May with a plan to use existing laws to lift the threat of deportation for large numbers of illegal immigrant students.
After pressing tough enforcement since the beginning of the administration, Ms. Napolitano had been increasingly criticized by Latino and immigrant advocates who said she seemed to be thwarting the president’s policies. Since his first campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama had pledged his support for legislation known as the Dream Act, a proposal before Congress that would provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrant students.
Ms. Napolitano’s shift helped ease rising impatience at the White House with her department. A big stumbling block, White House officials said, was resistance from career staff members and enforcement agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to a policy adopted a year ago. It required them to use prosecutorial discretion in picking and choosing among illegal immigrants facing deportation. It was the first time immigration officers had been asked to make such judgments as a regular practice.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican whose star is rapidly rising in his party, was close to introducing his own bill to help illegal immigrant students by giving them a temporary status, something quite similar to what White House officials had in mind. They feared Mr. Rubio’s proposal would pre-empt the president, making it appear he did not want to work with Republicans.
The White House was also awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court, expected any day, on the administration’s lawsuit against Arizona over a tough state immigration enforcement law. Campaign officials feared an adverse decision could leave Mr. Obama empty-handed when he tried to mobilize Latino voters for the November election.
A big concern for Mr. Obama, White House officials said, was whether he had legal authority to offer relief to so many immigrants.
The White House was less concerned about whether it would be circumventing Congress and enraging Republicans. “Look, every time we sneeze in the direction of an immigrant, someone says it’s amnesty,” the official said.
Under the policy, officials are to exercise discretion in deferring deportations of immigrants who qualify for two years. A grant of deferred action, as it is formally known, allows immigrants to apply for work permits. To be eligible, they must be 30 or younger and have come to the United States before they were 16. They must be in school or high school graduates or military veterans, with no criminal records.