The Obama administration in response to years of pressure from immigrant rights groups today announced that it will stop deportations and begin granting work permits for some Dream Act-eligible students. The policy change will apply to young undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children, along the lines of the Dream Act, a decade-old bill that passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate in 2010.  It is thought that some 800,000 people could be expected to come forward to receive deferred action from deportation.

The policy change will effectively enable eligible young people to stay in the United States without fear of deportation and without legislation from a Congress that is unlikely to pass a bill.  This change in policy is part of a general shift by the Obama administration to focus on deporting high-priority undocumented immigrants, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters.

Undocumented immigrants who came to the United States under the age of 16 and have lived in the country for at least five years can apply for the relief, as long as they are under the age of 30.  In addition, the young people must be either an honorably discharged veteran of the armed forces or the Coast Guard, or a student who has graduated from high school or obtained a GED.    Immigrants will not be eligible if they are   a “threat to national security or public safety,” including having been convicted of a felony, a “significant” misdemeanor, or multiple misdemeanors.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Protection have been instructed to review individual cases to prevent eligible immigrants from being put in removal proceedings.  Those already in proceedings could be granted deferred action for two years, and then may apply for renewal.

The Obama administration has been under pressure from immigrant rights groups to make an executive order protecting this category of young people from deportation.  Previously, though, officials had said the administration did not have the power to make an executive order blocking deportations of these undocumented young people.

Republicans in Congress have largely opposed legislation on the issue as amnesty.  DHS said there will still be no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants eligible for the policy change, because “only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights,” according to the DHS announcement.

The announcement comes several months before the presidential election, where President Obama hopes to win a significant portion of the vote from the Latino population.