More than half a million young immigrants who were granted temporary deportation waivers can apply for a two-year extension, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday, in what may be a template for more sweeping White House action before the midterm election.
Under a program that President Obama announced in 2012, about 560,000 people who were brought to the country illegally as children have been granted temporary work permits and two-year deportation deferrals. The first permits will expire in September.
"Despite the acrimony and partisanship that now exists in Washington, almost all of us agree that a child who crossed our border illegally with a parent, or in search of a parent or a better life, was not making an adult choice to break our laws," Johnson said.
The renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals comes as Obama has urged House Republicans to pass a Senate-approved overhaul of immigration laws, including allowing permanent legal status to most of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally because they sneaked across the border or overstayed a visa.
Latino voters were energized by the creation of DACA and turned out in record numbers to reelect Obama in 2012. If the House fails to act this summer, the White House is considering several actions that could be announced before the November election.
They include halting deportations of parents with children born in the U.S. or slowing the expulsion of immigrants who have violated immigration laws but don't endanger public safety, according to officials who asked not to be named in order to describe internal deliberations.
Republicans criticized the DACA extension, saying immigration officials will be pulled from reviewing applications of people trying to come to the country lawfully in order to process a surge in forms from those here illegally.
"The program is a haven for loopholes and mischief," Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
In California, immigrant rights groups used Spanish-language media Thursday to urge DACA recipients to reapply.
"It's expensive, it's invasive and it's time-consuming, but it's also one of the few rays of sunshine for the many, many millions of people who are living in the shadows but want to fully contribute to our society," Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said at a news conference.
Sean Tan, a 21-year-old senior at UC Berkeley, said DACA "has changed my life and my family's trajectory."
He and his two brothers were born in the Philippines. They came to the United States with their parents in 2005 on tourist visas and never left.
Under DACA, his older brother, Kjell, 23, has found work as a registered nurse and his younger brother, Euan, 18, was allowed into a work study program at UC San Diego. The three brothers no longer worry about being deported.
"It's a completely different perspective now," he said. "It's been a relief."
Under orders by Obama to make the deportation process more "humane" by keeping families together when possible, Johnson has led a review of deportation procedures. His report was expected this week, but Obama told Johnson to hold off on issuing recommendations to give the House time to act before it goes on August recess.
The overhaul bill that passed the Senate last year would boost spending on border security by $46 billion over 10 years and create a 13-year path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally who could pass a background check and pay a fine.
Proposals being considered in the House would probably allocate less money, require new enforcement measures before the legalization process begins, and allow fewer people to gain legal status.
Officials say a growing number of minors have tried to sneak across the Southwest border on their own during the Obama administration. Officials said 60,000 unaccompanied children may be apprehended this year, triple the total from 2009.
Although minors who entered in the last seven years are not eligible for deportation waivers, critics say the flood of recent arrivals is the result of easing immigration policies.
Obama and his aides "announced to the world that they will not enforce America's immigration laws, and have emphasized in particular that foreign youth will be exempted from these laws," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) said.
The deferrals are available to immigrants younger than 31 who have lived here since June 15, 2007, and who arrived before they were 16. Those convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors, or who pose a threat to public safety are ineligible. The program remains open to first-time applicants.