Obama takes a bold step on immigration politics and policy

President Obama’s move on Friday to halt deportations of young people who were brought to the U.S. when they were children  and who have not committed any crimes could reshape both the political and policy debate around immigration and Hispanics in the United States.

Taking a step long called for by Latino groups, the Department of Homeland Security announced Friday it will not try to remove from the country people under the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children and have lived here for at least five years. The provision would effectively stop any potential deportation of about 800,000 young people in the U.S whose parents did not enter the country through the traditional immigration process.

The young people would have this protected status for two years and could then renew it as long as they remain in school and don’t commit criminal acts. They could also apply for work permits.

The new policy in part enacts the Dream Act, a provision advocated by Obama and other Democrats that would create a path to citizenship for these young people. Congressional Republicans have opposed the Dream Act and broader bills to allow undocumented workers to become U.S. citizens, arguing it would reward illegal behavior.  The administration’s new policy does not create a path to citizenship, as that would require congressional approval.

But Latino activists hailed the decision by Obama, who they have long complained has deported too many illegal immigrants during his tenure and not pushed hard enough for immigration reform. In 2011, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is expected to deport about another 400,000 this year, according to the Associated Press.

“With a stroke of President Obama’s pen, our country lives up to its ideals and finds a fair and pragmatic solution, ending the nightmare of a generation,” said the pro-immigration group Define American.

The new policy could have major political implications. Polls show Obama getting about two thirds of the Latino vote, a wide margin over Mitt Romney. But more enthusiasm among Latinos voters could help put Obama over the top in states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada that have growing Latino populations.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr