The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the government no longer would seek deportation of undocumented immigrants who were taken to the United States as children, provided they meet specific criteria, and would allow them to apply for work permits. The changes are effective immediately.
Republicans attacked the change, saying it would be better to leave the matter to Congress.
President Barack Obama said the department's decision to refocus its enforcement would "mend our nation's immigration policy to make it more fair, more efficient and more just."
The young illegal immigrants attend the country's schools, play and live in U.S. neighborhoods and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Obama said, adding that the children were taken into the country by their parents and often didn't know they were undocumented until they applied for college or work.
"They're American in every single way but one … on paper," Obama said.
The changes affect undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children who aren't a risk to national security or public safety and who meet other criteria, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. Those meeting the criteria could receive deferred action for a 2-year period and will be eligible to apply for work permits.
The action "lifts the shadow of deportation from these young people," Obama said.
"This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix," he said.
"This is a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people."
The election-year initiative addresses a key issue of the critical Latino voting bloc opposed to deportation policies. The administrative action bypasses Congress and includes elements of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- the so-called DREAM Act -- long-sought-but-never-enacted legislation that would have provided a path toward citizenship for children who entered the United States illegally but attended college or served in the military. Republicans blocked the initiative in 2010.
Under the criteria, consideration will be given to individuals who entered the United States under age 16 and are not older than 30; have lived in the United States for at least five years; are in school, graduated from high school, earned a general equivalency certificate or honorably discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard or armed forces; and haven't been convicted of a felony, major misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Deferred action requests will be decided on a case-by-case basis, the department said. Implementation of the application process should happen within 60 days, officials said.
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner," Napolitano said in a release. "Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
Because the change is temporary, Obama called on Congress again to pass the DREAM Act, noting that both parties were involved in writing the legislation that passed in the 2010 Democrat-led House but failed in the Senate when it was blocked by Republicans.
"The need hasn't changed," Obama said. "The only thing that has changed, apparently, was the politics. It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes are Americans … simply because of the actions of their parents or the inaction of politicians."
Obama said he wouldn't give up on the issue as long as he is president because "it's the right thing to do" for the nation's economy and security and because "we're a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids."
Frank Jannuzi, director of Amnesty International's Washington office, said in a statement the human rights group welcomed the policy change that would "relieve the plight of undocumented children and their uncertain futures, but it is a temporary measure. Immigrant children and their families, and the country as a whole, deserve a permanent solution, not tomorrow or after the election, but right now."
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., assistant majority leader, called the policy change a "historic humanitarian moment."
"This action will give these young immigrants their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they've ever called home," Durbin said in a statement. "These young people did not make the decision to come to this country, and it is not the American way to punish children for their parents' actions."
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., often mentioned as a possible running mate for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said in a statement the news "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."
Noting there is broad support for the idea, Rubio said there also is 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."
Romney agreed with Rubio, saying he would rather see the matter handled through legislation.
Some Republicans were more critical. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he would sue the Obama administration because the executive branch doesn't have the power to issue the change in policy, The Hill reported. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement the proposal is "a breach of faith with the American people" that will have "horrible consequences for unemployed Americans looking for jobs and violates President Obama's oath to uphold the laws of this land."