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, and Hispanic voters in swing states will play a crucial role in the contest.
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.
In a Rose Garden statement, President Obama said the measure would “lift the shadow of deportation” from immigrants, some of who have made “extraordinary contributions” by “serving in our military and protecting our freedom.”
“That we would treat them as expendable makes no sense,” Obama said.
“They study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods ... they pledge allegiance to our flag, they are Americans in their hearts and minds ... and in every single way but one: on paper."
Obama was briefly interrupted by a reporter during his statement, a rare breach of protocol that caused the president to lose his temper.
"Excuse me sir, it's not time for questions, sir, not while I'm speaking," Obama said.
Later in his statement, Obama, pointing his finger at the reporter in front of the live TV cameras, said: "And the answer to your question, sir — and the next time I prefer you to let me finish by statements before you ask a question — is this is the right thing to do for the American people. I didn't ask for an argument, I'm answering your question."
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 felony or "significant" misdemeanor offenses, graduated from a U.S. high school or served in the military.
A memo from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ordering the "prosecutorial discretion with respect to individuals who came to the United States as children" argued that those covered by the order "only know this country as home." It said these people "lacked the intent to violate the law."
The new policy will apply to individuals who are already in deportation proceedings, the memo said.
The policy change will accomplish portions of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, legislation that has stalled in Congress amid Republican opposition.
Obama has a massive lead over presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters, but criticism from immigration activists over the administration’s deportation policies has intensified in recent weeks. Earlier this week a government report showed the administration’s attempt to cut back on deportations of law-abiding illegal immigrants has had little effect.
Hispanic voters could be key in the swing states of Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, and elsewhere.
"It's a medium-risk, high-reward strategy," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. "I think you risk angering people who are upset about immigration, yes. But for a president who’s got to win Florida, Nevada, Colorado, it is definitely something that can give the Latino community something to rally around."
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 GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama MORE (R-S.C.) said on Twitter that Obama's action could be unlawful.
“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.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Human rights groups sound alarm over Interpol election MORE (R-Fla.) praised the policy but criticized Obama for going around Congress.
“Today’s announcement 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," the Cuban American Rubio said in a statement. "And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long term one.”
Rubio, a possible vice presidential candidate, has been working on his own version of the DREAM Act but has yet to release any legislative language.
The change in policy comes eight months after the Obama administration set an annual record for deportations by removing nearly 400,000 people who were in the country illegally in fiscal 2011.
Of the 396,906 individuals removed, more than half — 216,698 — had been previously convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, which represents a 90 percent increase in the number of criminals deported over fiscal 2008, according to the numbers released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last October.
A spokesman for Homeland Security said the department would continue to focus its enforcement resources on "the removal of individuals who pose a national security or public safety risk, including immigrants convicted of crimes, violent criminals, felons and repeat immigration-law offenders."
"Today’s action further enhances the department’s ability to focus on these priority removals," the spokesman said.
The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), an immigration reform advocacy group, lauded Obama's announcement on Friday, saying it was evidence of his "true capacity to lead."
The group then said it was time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act.
“President Obama is showing the nation his true capacity to lead by taking the bold and courageous step to remove the fear of deportation and provide dreamers with the legal means to contribute their full potential to society," said Marielena Hincapié, the executive director for the group.
"This announcement provides real and much-needed relief now, but it is not enough. President Obama cannot provide these youth with the path to citizenship, which would allow DREAMers to participate in all sectors of civil society. We therefore renew our calls to Congress to pass the DREAM Act.”
NILC is one of the immigrant activist groups that had previously been critical of the administration's immigration policy.
"We’ve been disappointed by the administration’s record pace of deportations, and DREAMers have been among those deported," said Adela de la Torre, communications manager for the NILC, in an email to The Hill. "This is why today’s announcement is so important."
— Posted at 10:03 a.m. and last updated at 2:44 p.m. This report was corrected at 11:25 a.m.
—Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis contributed to this story.