June 16, 2012— -- President Obama's bombshell announcement that deportation rules will be eased to allow some young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and apply for work permits could play a strong role in the upcoming presidential election.
The lives of some 800,000 young immigrants were immediately changed by the new rule announced Friday, which allows them to avoid deportation, at least for the time being.
Undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 and have lived here for at least five continuous years are now eligible to apply for a two-year work permit that can be renewed, as long as they adhere to certain standards (they cannot have a criminal record or constitute a threat to national security, and must be current students, high school graduates or have served in the military).
But the new rule could also affect the outcome of the race for the White House, which is less than 150 days away, though Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has denied that the timing has anything to do with Obama's reelection campaign.
Both President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are courting the powerful Hispanic vote, but Obama's executive order may have tipped the scales in his own favor in important swing states like Florida, say the experts.
The new rule "gives Latinos an added reason not only to support the president but to actually turn out and vote," said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Indeed, recent poll numbers immediately prior to the changed deportation rule found that Hispanic voters favor President Obama over Mitt Romney at 67 percent to 26 percent. But they also largely disapprove of how he's handled deportations during his presidency thus far.
Deportations reached a record high of 400,000 illegal immigrants deported in 2011,
The new deportation order could erase some of that disapproval. Although the DREAM Act was rejected by Congress, Obama's executive order mirrors much of that legislation.
"It's the right thing to do, period," he said in his speech in the White House's Rose Garden.
Now, Hispanic voters' eyes will be on Romney to see how he responds to Obama's order.
During the Republican primaries, the former Massachusetts governor took a staunchly conservative stance.
"I think that we have to follow the law and insist that those who've come here illegally ultimately return home, apply, get in line with everyone else," he said.
Following the president's announcement, though, Romney changed his tune a bit, expressing solidarity with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and addressing the predicament of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents.
"We have to find a solution to help those kids who came here through no fault of their own," he said, but added that the president's executive order is a "short-term solution" because it can be reversed by subsequent presidents.
Both Obama and Romney plan to speak to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida next week.
But Romney faces an uphill battle in the arena of the Latino vote, and will have to backtrack on his previous positions if he wants to gain headway, according to Wilkes of LULAC.
"Now President Obama has made it even harder on him," he said.