Obama Defends Immigrant Deportation Rules Criticized as Political

The president announces a change likely to please Hispanic voters.

June 15, 2012, 10:14 AM

June 15, 2012 -- President Obama flashed anger for the first time in recent memory today as an eccentric conservative reporter interrupted his speech on immigration in the Rose Garden.

Neil Munro of The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, shouted at Obama in the middle of his speech formally announcing looser deportation rules, "Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?"

Irritated, Obama glared at Munro and told him not to interrupt, said he "didn't ask for an argument" and said the new order is "the right thing to do."

The change on immigration relaxes rules for younger illegal immigrants who haven't broken the law since coming into the country as children, a move that has riled Republicans while bringing the issue back into the fore of the 2012 election. The Homeland Security Department will no longer deport such immigrants, and work permits will be given to them.

The more lenient treatment is similar to the proposals in the DREAM Act, legislation supported by Obama but blocked in Congress.

"We're a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids," Obama said in his speech before he was interrupted.

The Obama administration denied that politics played a role in the announcement, but the timing is ideal for the president's re-election campaign. In the GOP primary, Mitt Romney adopted strictly conservative positions against illegal immigration in his effort to woo right-wing voters. He backs a strong fence along the border with Mexico, opposes most amnesty and boasts of his move as Massachusetts governor to deny in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

Democrats have said they plan to hold Romney to those positions, painting him as a candidate with extreme views on immigration. Romney's campaign stumbled last month when the Republican National Committee's director of Hispanic outreach told reporters that Romney was "still deciding what his position on immigration is," fueling the notion that he holds few true convictions.

Kevin Madden, a former Romney adviser, today said on MSNBC that, "there are going to be a lot more questions here, I think particularly up on Capitol Hill and the Congress' role in whether or not they believe that the president can go out and around Capitol Hill and around legislatures and around Congress on something like this."

Obama's announcement today is likely to curry favor with Hispanics, a key growing voting bloc that could determine the winner in November in important states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada. The president beats Romney among Hispanics in polls, but most Latinos say they disapprove of Obama's deportation policy. Obama also plans to speak to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida next week, as will Romney.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today denied that the plan was crafted at the direction of the White House.

"No, this was developed by the department," she told ABC News. "It was developed within my office, and it was, as I said, before a logical progression from decisions we have been making over the last three, three-and-a-half years."

Under the new rules, up to 800,000 immigrants will be affected. Deportation will no longer apply to immigrants who came into the country before they were 16 and are now younger than 30, have lived here for five straight years, have never been convicted of a crime or graduated from high school or got a GED.

Such immigrants will be allowed to apply for a two-year work permit that can be renewed unlimited times.

Israel Velazquez, a 16-year-old who emigrated from Mexico when he was 2, told ABC News that he lived in fear of being deported in Asheboro, N.C., where he said the amount of immigration checkpoints in his area made it difficult to drive. Now, he said, his future looks more promising.

"This news helps me out," Israel said. "It gives me the opportunity to go through university without paying very much. It gives me the opportunity to work, to have a better career for myself, and it gives me the opportunity that my parents didn't have."

GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa released a statement saying he was "outraged" by the new rules. "The American people have rejected amnesty because it will erode the Rule of Law," he said. "In much the same way, I believe the American people will reject President Obama for his repeated efforts to violate the Constitutional separation of powers."

Rep. Peter King of New York, the Republican chairman of the House committee on homeland security, said the White House is "overstepping its authority by weakening immigration laws without Congressional approval."

This story will be discussed Sunday on "This Week." Be sure to watch.

Kyle Blaine contribued reporting.