In an election-year policy change, the Obama administration said Friday it will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children if they meet certain requirements.
The shift on the politically volatile issue of immigration policy prompted immediate praise from Latino leaders who have criticized Congress and the White House for inaction, while Republicans reacted with outrage that the move amounts to amnesty -- a negative buzz word among conservatives.
Those who might benefit from the change expressed joy and relief.
Pedro Ramirez, a student who has campaigned for such a move, said he was "definitely speechless," then added: "It's great news."
President Barack Obama will make a White House statement about the policy change Friday afternoon.
Under the new policy, people younger than 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military can get a two-year deferral from deportation, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
It also will allow those meeting the requirements to apply for work permits, Napolitano said, adding that participants must be in the United States now and be able to prove they have been living in the country continuously for at least five years.
The change is part of a department effort to target resources at illegal immigrants who pose a greater threat, such as criminals and those trying to enter the country now, Napolitano said.
It "is not immunity, it is not amnesty," she told reporters, adding the shift is "well within the framework of existing laws" and "is simply the right thing to do."
The move addresses a major concern of the Hispanic community and mimics some of the provisions of a Democratic proposal called the DREAM Act that has failed to win enough Republican support to gain congressional approval.
Obama has been criticized by Hispanic-American leaders for an overall increase in deportations of illegal aliens in recent years. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 396,906 illegal immigrants, the largest number in the agency's history.
Friday's policy change is expected to potentially affect 800,000 people, an administration official told CNN on background.
Napolitano emphasized the move does not provide a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency, and she called for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would put into law similar steps for children of illegal immigrants to continue living and working in the country.
Republicans who have blocked Democratic efforts on immigration reform immediately condemned the move.
In a Twitter post, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the decision "avoids dealing with Congress and the American people instead of fixing a broken immigration system once and for all."
"This is a classic Barack Obama move of choosing politics over leadership," Graham's tweet said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the change a "decision to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants."
"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," Smith said in a statement. "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."
However, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who sponsored the DREAM Act, welcomed the announcement that he said "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."
"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," Durbin said in a written statement.
Ramirez, the student activist, said the chance to live and work in the United States "gives us a chance to show the American people that we're not here to use your tax dollars, we're not here to take your jobs, we're here to contribute."
Hispanics make up the fastest growing immigrant population in the country, and the Latino vote is considered a crucial bloc for the November presidential election.
A spokeswoman for a major Latino group, the National Council of La Raza, hailed the administration's move.
"In light of the congressional inaction on immigration reform, this is the right step for the administration to take at this time," said NCLR spokeswoman Laura Vazquez.
Immigration lawyers also called the change a major step in the right direction. However, one immigration expert warned that the new policy does not
"I worry that the announcement will be implemented more stingily than the administration would like," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School.
For Jose Luis Zelaya, who came to the United States illegally from Honduras at age 14 to find his mother, also an illegal immigrant, the new policy means that "maybe I will be able to work without being afraid that someone may deport me."
"There is no fear anymore," he said.