Several Maryland Democrats on Friday backed President Barack Obama's decision to allow certain young illegal immigrants to remain in the country, a policy that advocates say will affect as many as 800,000 people nationwide.
"The announcement today recognizes that we should not hold hardworking, innocent children responsible for the actions of their parents," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who is up for reelection this year. "We should focus our immigration enforcement on the most dangerous individuals rather than children who mostly have known no other country than the U.S."
But Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican who faces a difficult reelection this year, said he felt the decision undermined the Constitution.
"President Obama's decisions will encourage more illegal immigration, weaken our border security and make it more difficult to have a bipartisan dialogue to reach consensus to fix our national immigration crisis," Bartlett said in a statement.
Rep. Andy Harris, the state's other Republican lawmaker, did not respond to requests for comment.
Obama's announcement comes almost two years after Congress failed to pass legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents and who attended college or served in the military. The bill once had bipartisan support, but has recently drawn significant opposition from Republicans.
Under Obama's proposal, illegal immigrants would be allowed to apply for a work permit if they were brought to the country before they turned 16 and have no criminal record. They must also be under 30 years old and have graduated from high school or served in the military.
"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," Obama said during a Rose Garden address Friday. "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
Maryland Democrats, many of whom had voted for the federal DREAM Act previously, were not surprisingly supportive.
"I believe in immigration reform that protects our borders, protects American workers and rewards those who work hard and play by the rules," Sen.Barbara A. Mikulskisaid in a statement. "Young people who were brought here as children should be able earn an education and serve their country without threat of deportation."
"The focus of our deportation policy should be removing those individuals who are dangerous -- rather than punishing young people who were brought here as children and now want the opportunity, without the threat of deportation, to earn an education or work, especially those who already have served our country," Baltimore Rep.Elijah E. Cummingssaid in a statement.
Many congressional Republicans decried the move.
"How can the administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed?" Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people."
The decision comes a year after the Maryland General Assembly approved a related measure that would allow certain illegal immigrants to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates. That measure, which has been challenged by state Republicans, will now appear as a referendum item on the ballot in November.
In a statement, Gov. Martin O'Malleyurged state voters to "build on this momentum" by supporting the state law, known as the DREAM Act. The new policy, O'Malley said, is a "very positive and important step for young people in our country who consider themselves Americans and deserve the opportunity to contribute to our country's future without the fear of enforcement action."
Republican Dan Bongino, who is running against Cardin in November, said in a statement that "we have always welcomed a diverse immigrant community with open arms but those who choose to make the United States their home must respect the established, legal process. We are either a nation of laws, or not."