Barack Obama's administration made a splash in America's contentious immi- gration debate last week by announcing a shift in its deportation priorities - a move that had some immigrants' rights advocates smiling and champions of more draconian enforcement tactics seething.
But, with the 2012 presidential sweepstakes already underway, is this just blatant politicking by a president whose approval ratings are at the lowest point of his term?
Or, in the face of implacable Republican opposition to anything he proposes, has Obama simply bypassed Congress in order to give immigration reform advocates a bit of the 'change' he promised when wooing them ahead of 2012?
And what, if anything, does all this mean to the 50,000-plus undocumented Irish who are among America's 11-milllion-strong illegal immigrant population?
As outlined in a letter from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to several senators, DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will henceforth prioritise deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants with criminal records - and particularly violent offenders.
Cases against those not deemed a threat to society will be suspended (although, technically, they could be reopened later). Those permitted to stay will also be allowed to apply for work permits. The coming months will see 300,000 individuals processed on a 'case-by-case' basis, said Napolitano.
Republicans have accused Obama -amp; Co of circumventing their December 2011 congressional blocking of the 'Dream Act', which had offered a conditional citizenship pathway for children of the undocu- mented who were born in the US.
Backers of the new policy say it is a commonsense and cost-effective way of dealing with the enormous backlog of immigration cases.
Whether a backdoor amnesty, or a stepping-stone to further reforms, there is no denying that the new rules are from the 'comprehensive reform' Holy Grail which immigrants' rights activists have been pursuing for years. But, given that the Tea Party-fearing Republicans' agenda is increasingly conservative, comprehensive reform has almost no chance of passing Congress prior to the November 2012 presidential election. Kevin Johnson, an immigration expert and dean of the University of California at Davis's law school, told the Belfast Telegraph that that reality might make immigration activists more willing to give the new policy a chance.
"I do think the jury is out and the devil will be in the details in terms of how this is implemented," said Johnson. "I think the president is trying to toe a middle line on immigration at a time when the different sides are very polarised."
For many Republicans, the new policy is yet more proof that Obama -amp; Co are weak on immigration enforcement. But that analysis ignores the fact that Obama has deported illegal immigrants at a higher rate than any other president. On his watch, nearly 800,000 deportations have taken place. As for the undocumented Irish, they'll obviously be treated no differently than anyone else under the new rules.
And, like many others who believe Napolitano's letter needs clarification on several points, advocates for the undocumented Irish want to know how classifications such as 'criminal aliens' and 'those who pose a threat to public safety' will be interpreted in reality.
Ciaran Staunton, of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, cited a recent case of an undocumented New York Irishman who was detained by immigration officers after police stopped him for having a busted car tail light. "Now, in that instance, would he be eligible [under the new rules] to be released and fined?" asked Staunton.
Staunton said, regardless of the new policy's nuances, the bigger reform picture must be borne in mind.
"Even if comprehensive reform passed in the morning, we're still going to need to address the future flow from Ireland," he said. "Otherwise, we'll be back where we are now in 10 years' time."