TOPICS > Politics

What Obama’s Immigration Move Means for Undocumented Youth, Politics

June 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama announced plans to shift the administration's immigration policy Friday to allow some undocumented young people to remain in the U.S. For two sides of the issue, Jeffrey Brown talks with Cecilia Munoz, the president's director of domestic policy, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who opposes the move.
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JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama made a major shift on immigration policy today aimed at younger illegal immigrants. He called for allowing more of them to stay and work in the country.

Effective immediately, up to 800,000 young people living in the U.S. illegally will no longer be subject to automatic deportation.

The president announced the change in the White House Rose Garden.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are Americans, have been raised as Americans, understand themselves to be part of this country, to expel the people who want to staff our labs or start new businesses or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents, or because of the inaction of politicians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under the program, young illegals will not be deported if they were brought to the United States before age 16 and have remained for at least five years without leaving. They must also be under the age of 30, with no criminal history. And they must have a U.S. high school diploma, or its equivalent, or have served in the U.S. military.

Those who qualify may apply for a two-year work permit with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. The change effectively implements parts of the DREAM Act. The bill was meant to create a path to citizenship, but it died in Congress in 2010.

The president today said his new policy is not intended as a substitute for congressional action.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, let’s be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before the announcement, President Obama had faced criticism from Latino groups for stepping up the deportations of illegal immigrants. Last year alone, the number totaled nearly 397,000, the most ever.

In Washington today, 20-year-old Victor Pealafox exulted in the president’s announcement.

VICTOR PEALAFOX, undocumented immigrant: So, I’m undocumented, and I lived in the state of Alabama for 13 years. I graduated in 2010. And I was accepted to various universities in Alabama and across the Southeast, but I was unable to attend any of them because I was undocumented. With this announcement, with the news, this is the most important day of my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Young Latinos also cheered the change at a march in Los Angeles and watching on TV in Arizona.

But there were critics, too, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona. He’s built a national reputation for a hard-line stance against illegal immigrants.

JOE ARPAIO, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff: My opinion is that they want amnesty here. This is just another step towards amnesty, and I’m totally opposed to amnesty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Republican leaders in Washington complained that the president had taken unilateral action on a vital national issue.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has offered an alternative to the DREAM Act. In a statement today, he said: “Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one.”

For his part, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also called for a long-term solution.

MITT ROMNEY (R): If I’m president, we will do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the action of their parents.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the president’s action promises to have election-year repercussions, especially in battleground states like Colorado with large and growing Hispanic populations.

Two views of today’s action now, first from the administration. Cecilia Munoz is director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Well, thanks for joining us.

The president said this is not amnesty, not a path to citizenship, but we just heard that for some opponents it has many of those very characteristics. How do you define it? What is this?

CECILIA MUNOZ, White House director of domestic policy: Well, this is really a decision by secretary Napolitano to continue to use the prosecutorial discretion that she has been using over the last several years to make sure that the immigration enforcement case load is not clogged with people who are low priorities for enforcement, and making sure that they’re spending the resources, that DHS is spending its resources deporting the folks who have committed crime or who pose some kind of serious threat.

So, this is really an extension of her authority to use prosecutorial discretion in a way which lifts the cloud of fear of deportation from folks who fit the criteria that DHS articulated today.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you. . .

CECILIA MUNOZ: It’s not permanent. It’s not a permanent solution. The president was very clear about that today. And he very strongly supports congressional action to resolve this problem in a permanent way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you are framing it in the context of homeland security and to kind of break a gap there.

But surely it happens, it takes place at a time in the midst of a campaign. The president could have done this at any other time. So should it not be seen as a political act?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, the secretary took steps in 2010 to assert prosecutorial discretion. And after evaluating the impact of those steps, they took additional steps at DHS twice in 2011.

After evaluating the impact of that, they have taken this step today, and for the purpose of making sure that they are focusing the use of enforcement resources where they’re going to make the biggest difference. So, this is really an extension of something DHS has been involved in really since this administration came into power.

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you again, because, again, you have faced a lot of criticism from Latino groups over the deportations. And the president is out there looking for votes in this campaign.

So, no politics involved in this at all?

CECILIA MUNOZ: This is DHS’ decision on the basis of really sound law enforcement policy. And it’s a part of a progression that DHS has been engaged in again since Secretary Napolitano came into office.

It’s a very important step. Again, it does lift the shadow of deportation from over a significant number of young people. But at the same time, it also allows the agency to concentrate its enforcement resources where they’re most needed. That’s what DHS has been working to do all along. This is the next step in a progression of steps taken by the agency.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the criticism of the procedure, the process by which this has happened? Congress said no to the DREAM Act. Why go this route through an executive order? And what about the criticism you already hear from opponents that this is an unconstitutional, potentially unconstitutional approach to doing it?

CECILIA MUNOZ: There is no executive order. This was a decision by Secretary Napolitano to expand the use of prosecutorial discretion in a way which is clearly part of the authority that Congress designates to her as secretary of homeland security.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, people can reapply for — for the work permit after two years over and over and again. You said this is not permanent. And yet something like that makes it look as though it’s just — for people in this situation could just go on and on.

CECILIA MUNOZ: There is no guarantee of a renewal. Any subsequent administration could decide to treat these folks completely differently.

So students will have to apply for this every two years. And any subsequent administration can make their own decision about whether or not to use its discretion in this way. So it’s not permanent. As the president said today, these young people really deserve better than to have to organize their lives in two-year increments.

But the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to do this in a permanent way. We believe permanence is important. We believe — the president believes very strongly we need to pass the DREAM Act, to reform our immigration laws. The path to getting that done goes through the Congress of the United States. And he’s eager for the partners that he needs to get that done. He reiterated that again today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if this is the right thing to do, as the president said several times today, what is the logic for stopping it at age 30? Why isn’t someone who is 31 who has gone through all the same, spent all these years in the United States and gone to school and had a job or served in the military, why not — why isn’t he or she eligible?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, if you look at the version of the DREAM Act that passed the House of Representatives in 2010, the cutoff date in that legislation was the age of 30. So there has been some discussion about a similar population of young people. And that is where the discussion landed.

JEFFREY BROWN: But so it’s a practical matter; it’s not a logical matter? I mean, if you had your way, and you apply the same logic, then it would go on to older people.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, this — the secretary has articulated a clear set of criteria. That is the criteria that they’re going to apply to people who come forward. We still hope for a permanent solution to resolve our immigration problems, and the president is going to continue to work on an immigration reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked you about politics. I’m just going to try one more time. Are you expecting that we’re going to hear this a lot from the president on the campaign, particularly as he goes through a lot of states with a high Hispanic population?

CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, I will let the campaign staff talk about the campaign.

I will tell you as a policy matter — I’m the president’s director of domestic policy — this is in the best interest of the country. This is in the best interest of sound law enforcement practices at DHS. And as the president said today, it’s the right thing to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Cecilia Munoz, thanks very much.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a different take, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner joins us from Wisconsin. He is a past chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and an opponent of the DREAM Act.

Well, welcome, Congressman.

Cecilia Munoz and the president said very clearly it’s the right thing to do. You disagree. Why?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, R-Wis.: Strongly so.

First of all, the DREAM Act was rejected by a Democratic Congress in 2010. Now what the president is doing is having Napolitano do selective law enforcement. The law is still on the books. If you are here illegally, you ought to be subject to deportation. There should be no selection between people who won’t be deported and people who will be deported. If you break the law, you ought to have to suffer the consequences.

That’s called equal protection of the laws, which is something our Constitution guarantees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the argument here is that these are young people who came through no fault of their own, no responsibility for why they’re here. They have been here for a long time. They know no other country, really. They have been through school. They may have held a job. They may have served in the military. You’re arguing still that they should be deported?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: They should be subject to deportation.

And what the president and Secretary Napolitano seem to be doing is to say, OK, we will give 800,000 illegal immigrants two-year work permits that can be renewed indefinitely. And that’s 800,000 more people who are competing for jobs against Americans who have not broken the law. That is unfair to unemployed and underemployed Americans.

The principal problem facing our economy today is jobs. What the president is doing is flooding the job market with illegal immigrants that he is giving temporary work permits to. Not fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you also put out a statement today criticizing the way this was done, after Congress had turned it down. What is your argument about the way the president and the secretary have gone about this?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: The president of the United States, on Inauguration Day, takes an oath to faithfully execute the laws. Those are the laws that are passed by Congress. I think the president has broken his oath to faithfully execute the laws by essentially giving a “get out of deportation free” card to 800,000 people that he has selected through his secretary of homeland security.

We’re a government of laws. We’re a government of checks and balances. And the executive branch has arrogated to itself something that the people’s representatives in Congress rejected two years ago when his party, not mine, were in charge of both houses of Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you heard Cecilia Munoz and the argument is that the secretary has to make decisions about resources, how to use them, how to apply things.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: She is supposed to enforce the law.

If she doesn’t have enough money, she should go and ask Congress for more. It’s as simple as that. Whenever we have had a need for a national security or public safety issue, Congress has always followed the recommendations of the White House, regardless of who is in control, giving them the resources to keep America safe and to enforce our laws.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now let me ask you about the politics of this on your side. We heard in our setup piece Mitt Romney say that he wants a longer-term solution.

When reporters asked him whether he would overturn this specifically, he didn’t respond. You have governor — Rubio who has talked about trying to do something sort of like this, not quite in the same way. Are you looking for stronger statements from Republican leaders?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: No, I’m happy with the statements Republican leaders have made.

I would just remind everybody that seven years ago, when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I introduced a bill, and the House passed it and the Senate killed it, that would have solved this problem without giving amnesty to anybody. It would have secured the border.

It would have made harsher penalties on employers who break the law by hiring illegal immigrants. Had that bill passed and been signed by then President Bush, we wouldn’t be having this problem today.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I referred to governor. I meant Sen. Rubio.

But, specifically, today, he said, “There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own.”

Now, he said he wanted to do that without encouraging more illegal immigration, but he did say that there was broad support for doing something to help these kids. Do agree with that?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Any time amnesty of any type is given regardless of how you spin it, it encourages more illegal entries into our country.

That is what the Hesburgh Commission recommended to President Reagan in 1981. Congress ignored it. We had about three-and-a-half illegal immigrants in the country then. And now we have between 11 and 20 million. What this says is if you get in here and you are able to avoid detection, sooner or later, we’re going to have another amnesty and another amnesty and another amnesty.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We ought to do the right thing. And, again, I get back to the point that I tried in 2005 and 2006. And now we have got a situation where we have got unacceptably high unemployment and underemployment.

And the president and the secretary of homeland security are just having 800,000 illegal immigrants flood the labor market. That’s going to make it much tougher for unemployed Americans who are legally here to get jobs in this pretty awful economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, thanks so much.

And online, you can watch interviews with DREAM Act supporters, including Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Washington Post reporter who revealed last year that he is an undocumented immigrant. And on tonight’s edition of the PBS program “Need to Know,” my colleague Ray Suarez hosts a discussion about immigration reform.