Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children will be able to obtain work permits and be safe from deportation under a new policy announced on Friday by the Obama administration.
President Obama, speaking to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Friday afternoon, said the changes would make the immigration system "more efficient, more fair and more just."
His executive order, which Latinos and other immigrants have been pleading for since Congress turned aside an effort to pass similar legislation, cast into sharp relief the longstanding political differences on immigration, one of the most divisive and delicate issues being debated as the November elections approach.
Republicans were quick to criticize Mr. Obama, saying that he was overstepping his powers in an end run around Congress. But the president said he was acting only "in the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system."
The policy, effective immediately, will apply to people who are currently no more than 30 years old, who arrived in the country before they turned 16 and have lived in the United States for five years. They must also have no criminal record, and have earned a high school diploma, be in school or have served in the military.
These qualifications resemble in some ways those of the so-called Dream Act, a measure blocked by Congress in 2010 that was geared to establish a path toward citizenship for certain young illegal immigrants. The administration's action on Friday, which stops deportations but does not offer citizenship or even permanent legal status, is being undertaken by executive order and does not require legislation.
What the younger immigrants will obtain, officials said, is the ability to apply for a two-year "deferred action" that effectively removes the threat of deportation for up to two years, with repeated extensions. "This is not immunity, it is not amnesty," said Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, which oversees immigration enforcement. "It is an exercise of discretion."
People whose deferrals are approved will then be able to apply for work permits, which will be dealt with case by case, officials said. They estimated that the new policy would cover about 800,000 people.
One of them, Maria Praeli, a 19-year-old high school senior from New Milford, Conn., said she teared up when she found out about the change after completing her final exam of the year.
"I can finally drive and not have to worry about the police," she said. "I can finally have a work permit and not just to make money but to pursue a career." She wants to become a social worker.
The decision highlighted the importance of Latino voters to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. Many of the states in which the election will be decided — Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia among them — have large and growing Hispanic populations.
Mr. Obama’s action falls short of what some advocates have been seeking from an overhaul of the immigration system, and some Hispanic leaders have expressed disappointment that he has not done more.
But the new policy represents a sharp contrast to the tone the Republican candidates for president expressed on the issue during the primary season, when Mitt Romney, now the party's presumptive nominee, opposed the Dream Act and took a hard line against illegal immigration.
Mr. Romney has sought to build support among Hispanics mostly by emphasizing jobs and other economic issues over immigration. Mr. Obama’s new policy could put pressure on Mr. Romney to address the situation of young people who were brought to the United States illegally and have deep ties to their communities. But it has also given Republicans a chance to portray the president as acting in a blatantly political way in search of votes at a time when his campaign is being weighed down by slow job growth.
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, called the administration's approach "a short-term answer to a long-term problem." He had been suggesting that Congress should enact a somewhat similar policy by law.
“There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own," Mr. Rubio said, "but there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future. This is a difficult balance to strike, one that this new policy, imposed by executive order, will make harder to achieve in the long run."
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called the action "an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress and with a directive he may not have the authority to execute."
But Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic leader who with other senators had been seeking such an action for two years, called it "perfectly appropriate and legal."
Mr. Obama has said publicly on several occasions that his powers were limited on this question. "With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed," he said last year. But he has previously directed prosecutors to exercise discretion in choosing whom to deport, and officials characterized this action as an extension of that principle.
Even so, Mr. Obama, under the mantra "we can't wait," has made a practice of pushing parts of his agenda forward by executive order when he cannot get action from Congress.
But as a matter of executive power, officials said, this new policy could be reversed by the fiat of a future administration.
Details of the action were first reported by The Associated Press.
As recently as Thursday, the president said that he would like Congress to go even further, giving some such people a path to citizenship.
"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 in a speech in Cleveland. "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."
Immigrants have been beseeching the administration for just such an opening. Even so, since people who come forward would not obtain permanent lawful status, and the policy might be changed in the years ahead, it is uncertain whether everyone who qualifies will flood to the immigration service.
"People can make their own decisions about whether or not their circumstances warrant coming forward," an official said on Friday. The main incentive to do so, she said, was that it would make it easier to obtain a work permit.
Reaction among immigrant groups was positive, if somewhat restrained.
"There's a lot of relief and a lot of pure joy," said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy organization in Queens, where dozens of immigrants had gathered Friday to celebrate the new policy.
But the mood among some immigrant activists was more circumspect.
"We’re being very cautious, and we don’t want to get too excited, " said Daniela Alulema, 25, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador and a member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which has been lobbying for immigration changes. "We need to actually see this new policy implemented. We're taking it with a pinch of salt, and I hope that it means we won’t have to fight any more deportation cases of undocumented youth."
Ms. Napolitano said that it made no sense to focus immigration enforcement on people who pose little if any threat to the nation.
"Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner," Ms. Napolitano 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. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."