She added: “With each instance of this, the administration is providing amnesty to another group of people, and as long as they can get away with it, they’ll keep doing it.”
Obama has faced sharp criticism from progressives for his administration’s high levels of deportations, which reached 409,849 from October 2011 through September 2012, the fourth consecutive fiscal year that the number increased. But immigration advocates have cheered his policy moves over the past year, and he won reelection in November with more than 70 percent of the Latino and Asian vote.
In another recent policy change, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office announced last month that it would focus community detention efforts on illegal immigrants with a record of previous felony convictions or several misdemeanors. Agency officials said the move was made to put the department’s limited resources to better use in targeting the most dangerous criminals.
Still, administration officials emphasize that such administrative actions are not intended as a substitute for broader legislation, which would be aimed at providing a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.
“At the end of the day, those are just crumbs,” Kelley said of the executive moves.
Although Obama has pledged to push for comprehensive legislation early in his second term, the White House’s timetable has been complicated by the prospect of another round of fiscal negotiations over the debt ceiling in February and the president’s pledge to support a gun-control bill in the wake of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Both of those issues are likely to embroil the White House in bitter, time-consuming political battles with Republicans, particularly in the GOP-controlled House. Advocates said they are hopeful that Republicans will respond more favorably to immigration reform because the party is eager to broaden its appeal to minority groups in the wake of Obama’s election victory.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which promotes immigration reform, said the administration’s decision to begin implementing immigration changes last year marked a “turning point.” Obama had appeared to give up on the issue after Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, and many White House aides were “scared to death” about reviving the topic last year, he said.
The moves “not only rallied Latinos and progressives but won the favor of swing voters and threw Republicans on the defensive,” Sharry said. “It was such a turning point last year that it has turned the old conventional wisdom on its head. All of a sudden Obama was getting kudos for the political moves.”
Analysts said the latest policy change could alter the personal calculus of many immigrants who have concluded that remaining in the United States illegally is less risky than applying for a visa and being separated for years on end.
To qualify, an applicant must be inadmissible only on account of his or her unlawful presence in the United States and must demonstrate that being separated from family would mean “extreme hardship” for his or her U.S. relative.
“It’s a potentially significant feature of immigration law going forward because it removes this Catch-22 that people were subject to before,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on immigration.
Escobar, whose husband owns a landscaping company, said that barring his return to the United States would be devastating for her family, which includes her daughter, 14, and the couple’s 7-year-old son.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford our rent — we’d lose our home. I’d probably have to move back in with my mother. The children would have to change schools,” she said. “Their sense of security would be completely destroyed.”