President Obama suddenly eased enforcement of the nation's immigration laws Friday, an extraordinary step offering a chance for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work. Embraced by Hispanics, his action touched off an election-year confrontation with many Republicans.
Mitt Romney, Obama's GOP election foe, criticized the step but did not say he would try to overturn it if elected.
Obama said the change would become effective immediately to "lift the shadow of deportation from these young people."
"Let's be clear, this is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix," Obama said from the White House Rose Garden. "This is the right thing to do."
The administration said the change will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the "DREAM Act," legislation that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military.
Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be able to avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are 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 move comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida. While Obama enjoys support from a majority of Hispanic voters over Republican challenger Romney, Latino enthusiasm for the president has been tempered by the slow economic recovery, his inability to win congressional support for a broad overhaul of immigration laws and by his administration's aggressive deportation policy.
Some Republicans in Congress -- and the governor of Arizona, whose state has been at the center of enforcement controversy -- strongly criticized the Obama action. But the response from Romney was more muted.
Romney said Obama's decision will make finding a long-term solution to the nation's immigration issues more difficult. But he also said the plight of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children is "an important matter to be considered."
Obama's new policy tracks a proposal being drafted by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential vice presidential running mate for Romney, as an alternative to the DREAM Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.
Rubio said, "Today's announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer." But, like Romney, he said it was "a short-term answer to a long-term problem," and he added, "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."
The change in policy, to be carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, comes one week before Obama plans to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' annual conference in Orlando, Fla. Romney is to speak to the group on Thursday.
The change drew a swift repudiation from Republican lawmakers, who accused Obama of circumventing Congress in an effort to boost his political standing and of favoring illegal immigrants over unemployed U.S. citizens.
"President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Still, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell addressed the issue, underscoring the difficulty for Republican leaders as they walk a fine line of trying to appeal to the nation's fastest-growing minority group while not alienating their conservative base.
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said, "Ending deportations of innocent young people who have the potential to drive tomorrow's economy is long overdue, as are many commonsense reforms needed to center our immigration policy around our economic needs."
Midway through his remarks, Obama was interrupted by a reporter from a conservative online publication, Neil Munro of the Daily Caller, who shouted, "Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?" Clearly irritated, Obama said that he was explaining the policy, not looking for an argument, and that the change was the "right thing to do for the American people."