The Obama administration will stop deporting, and begin giving 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 a growing Latino electorate that has opposed administration deportation policies.
The administration's decision could affect as many as 800,000 immigrants.
In a statement this morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said “Our nation’s immigration laws... 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."
Illegal immigrants will avoid deportation and be eligible for work permits if they arrived in the U.S. before age 16, 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.
The president will deliver remarks about the new policy in the Rose Garden at 1 p.m. this afternoon.
The policy change 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 have attended college or served in the military. Republicans blocked the DREAM Act in 2010.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and vice chairman of the House Immigration subcommittee, told Fox Latino Thursday that he would not support any of the versions of the Dream Act currently being batted around, including one by Rep. David Rivera and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Florida Republicans.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found President Obama leading Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent. But the Obama administration's deportation policies have come under fire. In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people.
Both candidates are expected to head to Florida next week to address the National Association of Latino Elected Officials at a conference in Orlando. The Obama administration's new policy has the same goals as the limited version of the DREAM Act proposed by Sen. Rubio, which stops short of offering young illegal immigrants citizenship, but gives them a type of legal status. Romney said he was considering the proposal from Rubio.
This week, TIME Magazine featured young illegal immigrants in its cover story. Former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who was brought to the U.S. illegally by his aunt when he was 12, was featured with other immigrants who have publicly shared their story about their lack of legal residency status.
According to Napolitano, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigrations Custom Enforcement are expected to begin implementation of the application processes within 60 days. Individuals who are already in deportation proceedings but have already been identified as being eligible will be offered deferred action for a period of two years.
Update 11:20 a.m. ET: On a DHS press conference call, reporters quizzed DHS officials on whether the new policy would actually encourage illegal immigrants to step out of the shadows. Coming forward could be seen by some illegal immigrants as a risk, particularly under a different president who might have a change in approach in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration.
"We are encouraging people to take advantage of deferred action... and apply separately for work authorizations, but people can make their own decisions whether their circumstances warrant the application," a DHS spokesperson said, adding that the ability to legally apply for a job and obtain a driver's license will likely be incentives.
While deferred action will give temporary relief to individuals—and while those eligible will have paperwork for two years at a time, subject to renewal—Congress still has to act on a permanent solution, DHS officials said.
Undocumented immigrants under the age of 16 will not be eligible for the waiver but will not be subject to deportation.
Officials also said the policy will enable them to focus resources on illegal immigrants who are public safety and national security risks.
Alicia A. Caldwell of the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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