The Obama administration is easing its policy of deporting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the USA as children and have led law-abiding lives.
The announcement, coming five months before the presidential election while President Obama has been under increased pressure from Hispanic groups for his administration's record on deportations, was immediately denounced as "amnesty" by congressional opponents.
Obama gave a hint of what was to come Thursday during a campaign speech on the economy in Cleveland.
"If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity from all over the world, we won't deport hardworking, responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here," he said. "We'll let them earn the chance to become American citizens, so they can grow our economy and start new businesses right here instead of someplace else."
A Pew Hispanic Center poll released in December found that Latinos disapproved of the administration's deportation policy, 59%-27%. Latinos voted by 67%-31% for Obama in 2008 but have shown signs of diminished enthusiasm this year. Their unemployment rate is 11%, far above the nation's 8.2% rate.
Obama was to address the new policy from the White House Friday afternoon. It has been a priority for congressional Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano outlined the policy Friday morning.
The policy will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, which would establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the USA illegally but who have attended college or served in the military.
Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando next week. Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is scheduled to speak to the group Thursday.
Under the plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the USA 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 can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. 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 USA for extended periods.
"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.
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner," she said. "But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language."
Opponents in Congress called it amnesty.
"President Obama's decision to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants is a breach of faith with the American people," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "It also blatantly ignores the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy. This huge policy shift has horrible consequences for unemployed Americans looking for jobs and also violates President Obama's oath to uphold the laws of this land.
"President Obama's amnesty only benefits illegal immigrants, not Americans, and is a magnet for fraud. Many illegal immigrants will falsely claim they came here as children, and the federal government has no way to check whether their claims are true. And once these illegal immigrants are granted deferred action, they can then apply for a work permit, which the administration routinely grants 90% of the time.
"How can the administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed? President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people. With this track record, it's looking more likely that even President Obama may lose his job in this economy when Americans go to the polls this November."
Napolitano disputed the amnesty charge.
"This ... is not immunity. This is not amnesty," she said. "It is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not placed in removal proceedings. We are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. With respect to these young people, deferred action is simply the right thing to do."
Supporters in Congress said the policy is a start toward improving the nation's immigration laws.
"This could protect 800,000 or more young immigrants with roots here right now and will be seen in the immigrant and Latino community as a very significant down payment on broader reform," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. "It is a tremendous first step towards addressing the problems caused by our outdated and inflexible immigration.
"It also sets the ball in motion to break the gridlock and fix our laws so that people who live here can do so legally and on the books, and people can come with visas instead of smugglers in the first place. Today, the students are being protected, but we have to fix the system for their families and for the country once and for all."
People eligible for the DREAM Act -- referred to as DREAMers -- expressed cautious relief over the announcement.
Mohammad Abdollahi, 26, was occupying an Obama re-election office in Dearborn, Mich., on Friday with three other DREAMers when he heard the news. Abdollahi, whose family brought him to the USA from Iran when he was 3 and has since overstayed his visa, said other DREAMers were occupying Organizing for America offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ohio.
He said Napolitano's announcement was not enough for them to leave. It was about a year ago when the administration announced that it would review all pending deportation cases and drop cases that did not match their priorities of deporting dangerous criminals and repeat border crossers. That process has been moving slowly, and Abdollahi said he wants to see actual cases dropped against his fellow DREAMers before he is happy.
"We want to be excited, but at the same time, we're being realistic," Abdollahi said.
He said the timing of the move is undoubtedly tied to the November election.
"We completely know that both sides are vying for the Latino vote," he said. "We know everyone's trying to use the community. But if you're going to use the community, at least give us something legitimate. You can't just use us and not give us anything."
From the DHS announcement:
The department continues to focus its enforcement resources on the removal of individuals who pose a national security or public safety risk, including immigrants convicted of crimes, violent criminals, felons, and repeat immigration law offenders. Today's action further enhances the Department's ability to focus on these priority removals.
Under this directive, individuals who demonstrate that they meet the following criteria will be eligible for an exercise of discretion, specifically deferred action, on a case-by-case basis:
Came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
Have continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and are present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;
Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety;
Are not above the age of thirty.
Contributing: Alan Gomez, David Jackson and Aamer Madhani