WASHINGTON - Effective immediately, the Obama administration will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives.
The election-year initiative addresses a top priority of an influential Latino electorate that has been vocal in its opposition to administration deportation policies.
The policy change, announced Friday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, a long-sought but never enacted plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or join the military.
The extraordinary step comes one week before President Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando, Fla. Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is scheduled to speak to the group on Thursday.
In a statement from the White House Rose Garden Friday, Mr. Obama said his immigration plan will make the system "more fair, more efficient and more just."
"This is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, it's not a permanent fix," the president said. "This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a sense of relief to driven young people. It's the right thing to do."
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.
"Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways," Napolitano wrote in a memorandum describing the administration's action. "Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
Conrado Santo, of the Boston-based Student Immigrant Movement that works with young illegal immigrants, may be affected by the policy change. He told CBS Radio News he was 13 years old when his parents brought him to the United States. They came on a tourist visa and stayed. He's 24 now, meaning he's been living undocumented in the United States for more than 10 years.
"This is just a moment of just joy and excitement for me, for all of the people around me and my family and everyone," Santo said.
The policy will not lead toward citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods. It tracks closely to a proposal being drafted by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential vice presidential running mate for Romney, as an alternative to the DREAM Act.
Rubio did not criticize the administration's initiative Friday but said it would make it harder to achieve a permanent solution.
"Today's announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long-term problem," Rubio said in a statement. "And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one."
The move comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida. While Mr. Obama enjoys support from a majority of Hispanic voters, Latino enthusiasm for the president has been tempered by the slow economic recovery, his inability to win congressional support for a broad overhaul of immigration laws and by his administration's aggressive deportation policy. Activists opposing his deportation policies last week mounted a hunger strike at an Obama campaign office in Denver, and other protests were planned for this weekend.
The change swiftly drew an outcry from Republicans accusing Mr. Obama of circumventing Congress in an effort to boost his political standing. GOP lawmakers insist that previous uses of prosecutorial discretion in deportations amount to back-door amnesty by the administration.
"President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Republicans including Romney say they want tighter border security measures before they will consider changes in immigration law. Romney opposes offering legal status to illegal immigrants who attend college but has said he would do so for those who serve in the armed forces.
Praise for the new policy was also swift. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called the decision "an historic humanitarian moment," and compared it to the decision decades ago to give political asylum to Cuban refugees fleeing the communist island. "This is at least a reflection of that moment in history."
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the move. "Ending deportations of innocent young people who have the potential to drive tomorrow's economy is long overdue, as are many common-sense reforms needed to center our immigration policy around our economic needs," he said.
In announcing the change, Napolitano said Friday the decision "is well within the framework of our existing laws."
"We should not forget that we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," she said. "With respect to these young people, deferred action, the decision I announced today, is simply the right thing to do."
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found Mr. Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent. But his administration's deportation policies have come under fire, and Latino leaders have raised the subject in private meetings with the president. In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is expected to deport about 400,000 this year.
A December poll by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of the president's handling of deportations.
The administration announcement comes ahead of an expected Supreme Court decision on Arizona's tough 2010 immigration law that, among other things, requires police to ask for immigration papers from anyone they stop or arrest and suspect is in the country illegally. The Obama administration has challenged the law.
The change also comes a year after the administration announced plans to focus on deporting serious criminals, immigrants who pose threats to public safety and national security, and serious immigration law violators.
Under the plan, immigrants whose deportation cases are pending in immigration court will have to prove their eligibility for a reprieve to ICE, which will begin dealing with such cases in 60 days. Any immigrant who already has a deportation order and those who never have been encountered by immigration authorities will deal with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The exact details of how the program will work, including how much immigrants will have to pay to apply and what proof they will need, still are being worked out.
Two senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, stopped short of calling the change an administrative DREAM Act - the name is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors - but the qualifications meet those laid out in a 2010 version that failed in the Senate after passing in the House. They said the DREAM Act, in some form, and comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system remained an administration priority.
Illegal immigrant children won't be eligible to apply for the deportation waiver until they turn 16, but the officials said younger children won't be deported, either.
Last year, Napolitano announced plans to review about 300,000 pending deportation cases and indefinitely suspend those that didn't meet department priorities.