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President Barack Obama’s decision to end the deportation of many young undocumented immigrants appears to have undercut the efforts of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — a would-be vice presidential candidate who had been working on legislation to do the same thing.
“It’s hard to steal someone’s thunder when they have been working on a bill for three months and receiving a lot of coverage for it,” quipped a Senate Democratic aide. “Detractors can say what they will about President Obama’s plan, but it gets results.”
“Sen. Rubio should be praising the president,” the aide continued, adding that the junior Senator from Florida “did not have a plan to get his plan through the Congress.”
The White House announced Friday that the new policy, effective immediately, would allow people who were brought to the United States as children younger than 16, who do not present a risk to national security or public safety and who meet several key criteria to “be considered for relief from removal from the country or from entering into removal proceedings.”
Rubio had appeared to be making moves on the DREAM Act both to shore up his own bona fides with Latinos and to show he could be an able ambassador to the Hispanic community for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Because Rubio is rumored to be on Romney’s short list for the vice presidential pick, his efforts were greeted with skepticism by many Democrats even as they saw Rubio’s push as a potential way to achieve their own DREAM Act objectives.
Still, the president’s action could take the wind out of Rubio’s sails, given Obama’s action has reinvigorated opposition to the DREAM Act from conservative Republicans who see it as providing amnesty for people who are breaking American laws.
On Friday, Rubio seemed to be trying to strike a moderate tone. He said he welcomed the relief to the DREAM Act kids but believes it would likely make it harder to reach a permanent solution.
“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,” Rubio said in a release. “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.”
Giving veepstakes watchers even more fodder, Romney embraced Rubio’s position in comments made hours after the news.
“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,” Romney said at a campaign stop, according to a CNN report.
Romney noted that Obama’s action is “a short-term matter and can be reversed by subsequent presidents” without saying whether he would reverse it.
He also said he would like to see legislation. “I happen to agree with Marco Rubio as he looked at, considered this issue, he said that this is an important matter that we have to find a long-term solution,” he said.
During the GOP primary, Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act as president, and Rubio has altered his stance on the issue as well.
Republicans charged Obama with playing politics in issuing the new policy, and it is clear the move was designed in part to shore up the president’s reputation with Latinos in advance of what is expected to be a close November election. But a side benefit might be in putting both Romney and his would-be running mate in a difficult position on immigration issues.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been working for 12 years to pass the DREAM Act, said in an interview that he still hopes the president’s action helps Rubio find Republican support for a more permanent solution.
“I want Sen. Rubio to succeed, I’ve encouraged him.” Durbin said. “What the president did today, I hope that it will help him.”
The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who agree to go to college or join the military. The bill passed the House in 2010 but came up short in the Senate.
Durbin said despite his hopes, he does not believe he or Rubio will be successful this Congress. “I think [the DREAM Act is] still tough to pass this year. I’m working with Sen. Rubio; I hope we can pass it in the Senate with a bipartisan vote,” Durbin said. “That’s a good thing even if the House won’t take it up. But until we have a House of Representatives that is more open to immigration reform, I’m afraid it’s not likely to occur.”
The reaction of most Republicans was far stronger than that of Rubio or Romney.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for example, said Friday that he was planning to sue the White House to get the proposal overturned.
“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,” King said in a statement. “There is no ambiguity in Congress about whether the DREAM Act’s amnesty program should be the law of the land. It has been rejected by Congress, and yet President Obama has decided that he will move forward with it anyway. President Obama, an ex constitutional law professor, whose favorite word is audacity, is prepared to violate the principles of Constitutional Law that he taught.”
Durbin called King out and pointed to the Cuban-American experience.
“Mr. King is notorious for his opposition to immigration. He may be a Native American, I don’t know. But it’s quite likely in his background there was an immigrant to America that brought his family here just as my mother was an immigrant to this country,” Durbin said in Chicago. “I’d also like him to read a couple chapters in American history, not that far back, maybe 50 or 60 years and consider the hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees who came out of Cuba under the dictator Castro, seeking help in the United States. We accepted them and made them part of America. They didn’t have a legal right to be here. It was a humanitarian gesture, and it was the right thing to do, and they have made this a better nation.”
Obama touted the decision to end deportations in the Rose Garden, amid heckling by a reporter from the conservative-leaning Daily Caller website.
Obama criticized Congress for failing to act on immigration — calling out Republicans for helping to write the DREAM Act and then filibustering it in 2010.
And he contended that the people eligible are American in all but legal status.
“These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” he said.
“These young people are going to make extraordinary contributions, are already making contributions to our society,” Obama added. “I’ve got a young person who is serving in our military, protecting us and our freedom. The notion that in some ways we would treat them as expendable makes no sense.”
Obama left the podium without answering reporters’ questions on why he didn’t take this action two years ago, when advocates asked him to do so. Nor did he address the legal basis of his decision beyond saying that it was an improvement of previous guidance on prosecutorial discretion. Obama himself has previously said he did not have the authority to stop deportations on his own.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has worked closely with Durbin to help pass the DREAM Act, said that he was pleased with the move, which the administration said would apply to about 800,000 people younger than 30 who have been in the United States for at least five years.
Gutierrez and Durbin had been critical of the previous administration policy on DREAM Act kids that had sought to only deport illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
That policy was not being implemented by law enforcement, and they saw the president’s announcement as the next step.
“I want to thank the president of the United States for taking this,” Gutierrez said in a conference call. “We’ve had our disagreements on the extent of prosecutorial discretion and what the president can and cannot do.”
“What happened was that [Napolitano’s] orders from above were not being followed at office level,” Durbin said at a press conference he held in Chicago. “And so we gave them a list of DREAM Act students who were actually subject to deportation. And that, I think, opened their eyes, that even sending a general order from the White House was not resulting in these DREAM Act students being protected; and so they decided that they had to do something much more specific, dramatic and clear. And I think that is why this order was issued today.”
Democrats also said that there is historical precedent for the move.
“Before there was a Cuban Adjustment Act, Democratic and Republican presidents gave status to all Cubans coming to this country even though under the immigration law at the time there was not a specific provision for them,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J), who was on the conference call with Gutierrez.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.