By MIke Lillis - 08/18/11 09:30 PM EDT
Democrats in both chambers are cheering Thursday after the Obama administration unveiled more lenient rules surrounding the deportation of illegal immigrants.
The changes — announced by the Department of Homeland Security — will allow many illegal immigrants to remain in the country and apply for work permits.
The changes could be particularly beneficial to people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, an immigration proposal pushed by Democrats that has yet to pass Congress.
The DREAM Act would offer a pathway to permanent residency — and eventually citizenship — for certain illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The bill passed the House in December, but was killed by a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) praised the DHS announcement, saying President Obama "made the right decision in changing the way they handle deportations of DREAM Act students."
“These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and, maybe, Senators, who will make America stronger," Durbin said in a statement.
To be eligible for the DREAM Act, a person would need to have been in the country for at least five years; earned a high-school diploma or its equivalent; and entered an institution of higher education or the military.
Supporters say the DREAM Act would empower motivated young people to contribute to the betterment of the entire country. Opponents argue the bill lends amnesty to people who broke the law the moment they crossed the border.
The DHS policy changes are sure to draw heavy fire from Republicans, who will likely view them as a unilateral move by the administration to ignore Congress's wishes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the change “will help prioritize our limited enforcement resources to focus on serious felons, gang members and individuals who are a national security threat rather than college students and veterans who have risked their lives for our country.”
“This common sense approach,” Reid added, “will address an untenable situation where the deportations of foreign drug traffickers and violent criminals face long delays because our immigration courts are overwhelmed by low-priority cases of individuals with no criminal records.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) sounded a similar note, hailing the move as “a victory not just for immigrants but for the American people as a whole.”
“Focusing scarce resources on deporting serious criminals, gang bangers, and drug dealers … is the right thing to do,” he said.
Since he took office, Obama has been under fire from liberal Democrats and immigrant advocates for failing to back up campaign promises of enacting sweeping reform. Perhaps no one has been as critical as Gutierrez, who acknowledged a sudden change of heart Thursday.
“This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for and that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies,” he said in a statement.
—This story was posted at 4:37 p.m. and updated at 5:30 p.m.