WASHINGTON, USA - About 800,000 young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children could be spared deportation under new immigration rules announced by the Obama administration on Friday that may appeal to Hispanic voters in an election year.
The move comes as Obama, a Democrat, is courting Hispanics as he fights for re-election on Nov. 6 against Republican Mitt Romney, who has taken a harsh stand against illegal immigration.
Obama has long supported measures to allow the children of illegal immigrants to study and work in the United States, but efforts to pass such measures in Congress have failed amid objections by Republican leaders.
The president's action sidestepped Congress and laid down a challenge to Republicans, many of whom view leniency on deportations as amnesty for people who are living in the country illegally.
"This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix," Obama told reporters at the White House.
"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," he added.
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are Americans," he said.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who made the initial announcement, said that illegal immigrants up to 30 years old who came to the United States as children and do not pose a risk to national security would be eligible to stay in the country and allowed to apply for work permits.
The policy was announced a week before Obama addresses a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida. Romney also is set to address the group next week.
While public opinion polls show Obama receiving overwhelming support from Hispanic voters, his relations with the fastest growing U.S. minority group have been strained because of his administration's aggressive deportation of illegal immigrants.
There are an estimated 1 million to 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the country as children living in the United States, according to immigration group estimates.
U.S. officials said the new measures would affect roughly 800,000 people.
'We need a law'
Democrats in Congress hailed the Obama administration's decision, but said there still was a need to enact legislation to permanently protect these immigrants.
"We need a law," Senator Richard Durbin said in a telephone interview with Reuters. "But until we create this law this is an historic humanitarian moment."
"Effective immediately, young people who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own as children and who meet several key criteria will no longer be removed from the country or entered into removal proceedings," Napolitano told reporters on a conference call.
"This grant of a deferred action is not immunity, it is not amnesty," she said. "It will help us continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure that resources are not spent pursuing the removal of low priority cases involving productive young people."
To be eligible for the new enforcement rules, a person must have come to the United States under 16 years old and have resided in the country for at least five years. They must be in school or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They must also be free of convictions of felony or significant misdemeanor offenses.
A top Republican in Congress criticized the new policy. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith called Obama's decision a "breach of faith" that he said will have "horrible consequences" for unemployed Americans looking for jobs.
Some Republicans accused Obama of exceeding his authority, but they did not specifically say they would file lawsuits.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is the author of legislation allowing this group of immigrants to attend college in the United States and serve in the military, while also providing them a path to citizenship. Durbin said he would like to try passing his bill this year, but that he needed Republican help to overcome procedural roadblocks.
Most of the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanics. Immigration is a big issue for Hispanics, an important voting bloc in the United States that could help determine who wins the election between Obama, a Democrat, and Romney, who like many other Republicans has taken a hard line on illegal immigration.
Early this year, during the Republican presidential primary campaign season, Romney said he favored "self-deportation" in which illegal immigrants would realize they would be better off returning to their native countries because they cannot find jobs in the United States.
In an attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters, however, Romney has argued that his plans to help revive the U.S. economy would translate into gains for this minority group.