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President Obama's decision to stop deporting young, otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants could help rebuild his support among electorally important Latinos after 18 months of futile efforts, some activists said Friday.
"There is overwhelming support for the protection of these children, as there is in the rest of the country. I think this could have an energizing effect on Latino voters," says Clarissa Martinez del Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for National Council of La Raza.
Del Castro is one of many immigrant advocates who earlier this week declared Obama's previous efforts to reduce deportations a failure. Most of them on Friday applauded his new plan.
But the initiative stops well short of Obama's 2008 campaign promise to overhaul the immigration system and doesn't measure up to the DREAM Act, which failed in the Senate in 2010 and began to erode Latinos' enthusiasm for Obama. And some immigration advocates spoke out against the move.
Mohammed Abdollahi, an organizer with DreamActivist.org in Michigan, said his group initially was excited, until learning the details. He notes that the policy doesn't guarantee any applicants relief from deportation. He says it merely reinforces a year-old initiative widely criticized for having failed in its goal of slowing deportations.
"What we've been asking for is an executive order from President Obama mandating that deportations of DREAM act-eligible people be stopped," Abdollahi said, speaking by phone from the Obama campaign's office in Dearborn, Mich., where he and other activists were staging a sit-in as protest. "We know that local [immigration enforcement] officers are not going to follow by this memo."
Conservative Republicans in Congress and advocates of stricter immigration enforcement denounced the plan as backdoor amnesty and said Obama has overstepped his authority.
But Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was measured in his criticism of Obama:
"I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis, so they know what their future would be in this country," he said. "I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution because an executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter — it can be reversed by subsequent presidents," Romney said in a statement from the campaign trail.
"I'd like to see legislation that deals with this issue, and 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. If I'm president, we'll 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."
Romney pursued the toughest positions on immigration among the GOP primary candidates, advocating a border fence, vowing to veto the Dream Act and tapping as an adviser Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped craft laws cracking down on illegal immigrants in Arizona and other states. The Arizona law, which Romney once called a "model" policy, is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The GOP candidate has since steered clear of the issue. He has said he'd review Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's alternate DREAM Act proposal. And his statement on Obama's directive notably didn't indicate whether he'd reverse it.
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which favors limiting the flow of immigration, released a statement calling the administration's move "unconstitutional":
"President Obama thwarted the will of Congress and shunned the 20 million under and unemployed Americans by announcing he will grant work permits to 2-3 million illegal workers."
Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the vice chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, suggested the policy shift would hurt Obama's reelection bid:
"Americans should be outraged that President Obama is planning to usurp the Constitutional authority of the United States Congress and grant amnesty by edict to 1 million illegal aliens. ... I believe the American people will reject President Obama for his repeated efforts to violate the Constitutional separation of powers."
Darry Sragow, a lawyer and longtime Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles, said the president's move puts Romney in a difficult position.
"His base is not going to like what the president just did, but he can't win in November by tacking hard to the right," Sragow said.
Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and campaign strategist who served in the first Bush White House, said Obama's plan is "a clumsy effort ... to put himself above the law." He said the move reflects "sheer gall," noting that it comes the week before Obama and Romney are scheduled to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, Fla.
Rogers recommended that Romney clarify his own position on illegal immigration and "clean up some of the damage done during the primary season when his opponents wanted to paint him further to the right than he really is."
Strategists in both parties believe the election could come down to a handful of battleground states, particularly where large Latino populations have the potential to deliver the decision margin.
Multiple polls show Obama holds a wide advantage among Latino voters. A poll last month had Obama leading Romney among Latino registered voters, 61 percent to 27 percent.
But many Democrats and Hispanic leaders say the Obama administration's immigration policies — especially the deportation of a record 1.1 million people in three years — has alienated Latinos, and they can't be taken for granted.
And they argue that Obama can't afford slippage of Latino support given his weakened support among some white voters.
Some polls have found that Latinos' support for Obama has softened significantly and that their enthusiasm for this election is weak. And the number of Hispanic registered voters has declined 5 percent since 2008, to about 11 million.