Insisting it is not amnesty, President Obama issued an order Friday allowing 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 serious offenders.
In essence, the government will be using its discretion not to pursue those who are under 30, arrived in this country before turning 16, have no felony record, have resided here continuously for at least five years as of Friday, and are currently in school, have graduated from high school or obtained an equivalency diploma, or are honorably discharged veterans.
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 heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,'' he said, adding many "have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver's license or a college scholarship."
The administration puts the number who could be affected in the 800,000 range. But the Pew Hispanic Center set the figure at close to 1.4 million.
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 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 state and local police a role in apprehending illegal immigrants. She called it a "pre-emptive strike" against the court and its forthcoming decision.
"The crux of SB 1070, of course, is documentation," the governor said.
"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, although she conceded she is unsure how the president's directive will affect SB 1070 if its key provisions are allowed to go into effect.
One 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 Department of Homeland Security says those in the deferred prosecution program will not be issued any special ID saying they are protected by the order. But their status will be in agency records.
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: Those granted deferred prosecution will have federally issued work permits.
Brewer said she is unsure how Friday's order will affect the law. "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 proposed law would provide a path to citizenship for those brought to the United States illegally as children. And Homeland Security officials stressed that this "prosecutorial discretion" gives no rights to those affected, 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 stopgap 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."
A Pew Hispanic Center survey last year found 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 there have been more immigrants deported each year under this president than under George W. Bush.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the president's actions will have political repercussions on both sides of the issue. But he agreed the move will help Obama with the Latino community, which had heard various promises before from the president.
"Like any voter group, actions speak louder than words," he said.
"This is an action," Grijalva continued. "And I think the president will get a great deal of respect for what he did from many sectors in the Latino community" which he said should "pay off in November."
The president said the executive action was necessary 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 in the past, including at one time by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Grijalva said given the current makeup of Congress, the law isn't likely to pass soon.
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."
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, in a brief statement to reporters, said Obama's decision is wrong - but only because it is a policy that can be reversed by subsequent presidents.
"I'd like to see legislation that deals with this issue," saying he agrees with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that there needs to be a long-term solution.
"If I'm president, we'll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the action of their parents," Romney said.
MORE Inside, online
Read what politicians and other leaders representing Arizona had to say about Obama's immigration policy announcement, Page A5
On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/video for Mitt Romney's reaction to the decision and to see President Obama exchanging words with an interruptive reporter. Read a transcript of the chat in which readers offered their reactions at live.azstarnet.com
How to apply:
Individuals who are not in removal proceedings or who are subject to a final order of removal will need to submit a request for a review of their case and supporting evidence to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But the federal agency has not yet crafted the procedures and no requests are being taken at this time.
Beginning June 18, those who meet the eligibility criteria can call the USCIS hotline at 1-800-375-5283 with questions or to request more information on the new process. The hotline offers assistance in English and Spanish.
Information is also available at www.uscis.gov
"This is a temporary stopgap 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."