The Obama administration will stop deporting and begin granting 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 an influential Latino electorate that has been vocal in its opposition to administration deportation policies.
The policy change, described by two senior administration officials, will effect as many as 800,000 immigrants who were at risk of deportation.
It also bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) according to the Associated Press, a long sought after but never implemented plan to establish citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but have attended college or served in the military.
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are now 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 also 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 officials who described the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it in advance of the official announcement.
The policy will not lead towards citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods.
Janet Napolitano, current Secretary of Homeland Security wrote a memorandum describing the policy saying,
"Many of these young people have already contributed to our country in significant ways...Prosecutorial discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
The change is likely to cause an outcry from congressional Republicans, who are sure to perceive Obama's actions as going around them.
Romney and many Republican lawmakers want tighter border security measures before considering changes in immigration law. Romney opposes offering legal status to illegal immigrants who attend college but has said he would do so for those who serve in the armed forces.
Under the plan, immigrants whose deportation cases are pending in immigration court will have to prove their eligibility for a reprieve to ICE, which will begin dealing with such cases in 60 days.
Any immigrant who already has a deportation order and those who never have been encountered by immigration authorities will deal with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.