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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Barack Obama has announced a major change to immigration policy, one that he says could lift the shadow of deportation, as he called it, from hundreds of thousands of young people.
The new policy is aimed at those who illegally came to this country as children, and who've generally stayed out of trouble since they got here. Under the administration's new plan, these immigrants would get a temporary, two-year waiver from deportation, and would also be eligible for a work permit. Now, the move drew swift reaction, both from Latino activists and opponents of illegal immigration. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House.
Scott, thanks for being with us.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
SIMON: And who would this change affect?
HORSLEY: Well, the policy is aimed at people who came to the U.S. when they were under the age of 16, and who've lived here for at least five years. Those who have gone to school or finished school or gotten their GED or served in the military, and who are not yet 30 years old. These are, if you will, the most innocent of illegal immigrants, those of whom Mr. Obama said they are Americans in every way but on paper.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you've done everything right your entire life; studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about.
HORSLEY: So instead, the president's policy would allow these folks to stay in the country without threat of deportation for two years, and that waiver could be extended.
SIMON: This, a substitute for congressional action?
HORSLEY: Well, no. And the White House is very careful to say this is not a blanket policy. Mr. Obama is sensitive about appearing to be substituting his judgment for that of Congress. Instead, the administration is calling this an exercise of prosecutorial digression within the existing immigration laws.
Mr. Obama described it as a stop-gap measure while he tries to build support for a more comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. Some critics, though, I should say, are not buying that, and they are accusing Mr. Obama of executive overreach.
SIMON: There are political implications too, aren't there, in an election year?
HORSLEY: Certainly, there are. Mr. Obama's reelection chances may hinge on turnout by Latino voters. They were a big part of his winning coalition four years ago, and especially important in some swing states. But this time around, some Latinos have been turned off by what they have seen until now as the president's failure to push through an immigration reform bill, and by the fact that deportations on Mr. Obama's watch have actually been going up.
So this move may help to counter that and may build enthusiasm among Latino voters. Certainly, Mr. Obama needs their support and he needs their turnout very much if he's going to win reelection in November.
SIMON: Now, during the primaries, the apparent Republican White House nominee, Mitt Romney, took a very hard line against illegal immigration, didn't he?
HORSLEY: That's right. Even within the Republican field, Mitt Romney was much tougher on illegal immigration than some of his rivals. But when he was asked about the president's new stance, Romney took a somewhat more moderate tone.
MITT ROMNEY: I happen to agree with Marco Rubio, as he looked at this issue. He said that this is an important matter; that we have to find a long-term solution, but that the president's action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult.
HORSLEY: And that idea that the president's unilateral action was somehow making it more difficult to achieve some lasting congressional compromise was also echoed by some of the Republican lawmakers in Congress. But you can hear, even there, Romney himself is saying some accommodation might be in order for these illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. He, just like the president, knows he can't write off Latino vote all together.
And Scott, the timing of this is significant. Both Mr. Obama and Romney are due to address a large gathering of Latino elected officials in Florida next week.
SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.
HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.