Insisting it is not amnesty, President Obama said Friday he would allow those brought to this country illegally as children to remain, and even to work, a move that could help up to 1.4 million.
The president, in a Rose Garden speech, described it as further refinement of the administration's policy to concentrate its prosecution and deportation efforts on the most serious offenders.
In essence, the government will be using its discretion not to pursue those who arrived in this country before turning 16, have no felony record, have resided here continuously for at least five years as of today, and are currently in school, have graduated from high school or obtained an equivalency diploma, or are honorably discharged veterans.
And they cannot have turned 30.
Those eligible can seek what amounts to a two-year deferment of any prosecution for being in this country illegally, a deferment that is infinitely renewable.
They also will be given permission to work legally in the United States.
"These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag,'' Obama said.
"They are Americans in their hearts, their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,'' he said, saying many "often have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver's license or a college scholarship.''
The administration is putting the number who could be affected in the 800,000 range. But the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the announcement could affect up to 1.4 million children and young adults.
That includes about 700,000 who are age 18 to 30 but arrived in the U.S. as children and either are in high school or already have graduated. Pew also says there are another 700,000 younger than 18 who are in school, including 150,000 in high school.
Gov. Jan Brewer noted the surprise announcement comes just days before the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on the legality of Arizona's 2010 law aimed at giving the state a role in apprehending illegal immigrants. She called it a "preemptive strike'' against the court and its forthcoming decision.
"What he has done today is he is going to give documentation to nearly a million people that have arrived in our country illegally and not by the rule of law,'' she said. But Brewer later conceded she is unsure how the president's directive will affect SB 1070 if its key provisions are allowed to go into effect.
A key section of the law under high court review would require state and local police to check the immigration status of those they have stopped if they have reason to believe they are in this country illegally.
The position of the Department of Homeland Security is that those in the deferred prosecution program remain in this country illegally. And they will not have an ID card saying they are protected by the order, though they will be entitled to get a work permit.
But officials said their status will be in agency records. And any calls by state and local police to find out whether someone is here illegally will result in a response that the person cannot be held.
The directive also could undermine another section of SB 1070 which makes it a state crime for someone not in this country legally to seek work in Arizona, as those granted deferred prosecution will have federally issued work permits.
Brewer said she is unsure how today's order will affect the law -- assuming the high court gives the go-ahead for enforcing the sections a federal judge placed on hold nearly two years ago.
"I believe that we need to address that issue,'' she said.
SB 1070 aside, Brewer said the action amounts to "back-door amnesty,'' with the president using his power to do what Congress will not: adopt the DREAM Act.
That law, which has been debated by Congress, goes much further. It would provide a path to citizenship for those brought to the United States illegally as children. Homeland Security officials stressed that this "prosecutorial discretion'' gives no rights to those affected or provides a route to citizenship, saying only Congress can do that.
"This is not amnesty,'' the president said.
"This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. This is not a permanent fix,'' he continued. "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. It is the right thing to do.''
Brewer, however, characterized Obama's move as "blatant political pandering by a president desperate to shore up his political base.''
That theme was echoed by Republican Sen. John McCain who called the president's actions a "politically-motivated power grab that does nothing to further the debate but instead adds additional confusion and uncertainty to our broken immigration system.''
Pew Hispanic Center says a survey last year found that Hispanics oppose the deportation policies of the Obama administration by a margin of 59 to 27 percent. And 41 percent of those questioned said they are aware that there have been more immigrants deported each year under the Obama administration than that of his predecessor.
The president acknowledged that his action comes because Congress has refused to approve the DREAM Act -- short for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act -- even though it has had bipartisan support, at least in the past, including at one time by McCain.
Brewer sidestepped questions of how she feels about the proposal and whether those who entered the country illegally as children should be sent back.
"My suggestion has always been (that) we need to get our borders secure and then we can deal with these other issues,'' the governor said. Pushed further, she would respond by saying only "I believe in the rule of law.''
U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., expressed similar sentiments, saying the president -- who he called the "propagandist-in-chief'' -- must first act to secure the border
On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the policy "a sensible solution,'' though not a permanent one.
"Those with deep roots in the United States who have contributed immensely to our country's well-being will -- at long last -- be taken out of the deportation pool so we can concentrate our resources on real threats and serious criminals,'' he said.
State Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said more needs to be done to ensure that the brightest of high schoolers get a college education.
Nothing in existing law denies college enrollment, even in Arizona. But a 2004 voter-approved initiative says those who are not in this country legally -- which would still include those in the deferred prosecution program -- must pay the higher tuition charged to out-of-state residents.