The Obama administration announced Friday it will stop deporting illegal immigrants who come to the country at a young age.
The politically charged decision comes as Obama faces a tough reelection fight against Republican Mitt Romney, with Hispanic voters in swing states seen as a key bloc.
The change in policy could allow as many as 800,000 immigrants who came to the United States illegally not only to remain in the country without fear of being deported, but to work legally, according to a senior administration official speaking to reporters Friday.
Obama is set to make a statement at 1:15 p.m. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the new policy Friday morning.
“Young people who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own as children, who meet several key criteria, will no longer be removed from the country or entered into removal proceedings,” said Napolitano in a conference call with reporters on Friday morning.
“This grant of deferred action is not immunity, it is not amnesty, it is an exercise of discretion so that these young people are not in the removal system,” she said. “It will help us continue to streamline immigration enforcement, ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low priority cases involving productive young people.”
The new policy will not grant citizenship to children who came to the United States as illegal immigrants, but will remove the threat of deportation and grant them the right to work in the United States.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the policy change will apply to those who came to the United States before they were 16 and who are younger than 30 if they have lived here for five years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or served in the military.
A number of Republicans criticized the move, arguing it could be illegal.
“How can the administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed?” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Twitter that Obama’s action could even be illegal.
“President Obama’s attempt to go around Congress and the American people is at best unwise and possibly illegal,” Graham said in a Tweet.
“This type of policy proposal, regardless of motivation, will entice people to break our laws,” Graham said in another tweet.