President Barack Obama announced Friday that his administration will offer work permits to some young illegal immigrants who would otherwise be at risk of deportation, saying it will make the country's immigration laws "more fair, more efficient and more just."
The new policy, which is effective immediately, was first announced Friday morning in a statement by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Democrats and Latino advocates cheered the move, while some Republicans accused Obama of overstepping his authority in a ploy to appeal to a key voting bloc before the presidential election.
In remarks in the White House Rose Garden Friday afternoon, Obama said the young people covered by the policy change have grown up in American communities and sometimes do not know they are in the country illegally until they apply for a job, driver's license or college scholarship.
"They are Americans in their heart, their minds, in every single way but one -- on paper," he said.
"Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you've done everything right your entire life," Obama said, "only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country you know nothing about with a language you may not even speak."
The president criticized congressional Republicans for failing to pass the Dream Act, which would have offered some undocumented young people a path to citizenship if they go to college or join the military.
He also responded to some Republicans, including Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who criticized the move as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
"This is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is a not a path to citizenship, it's not a permanent fix," Obama said of Friday's action, which he instead called a "temporary stopgap measure."
Obama's statement about the new policy was marred by shouted interruptions by a reporter with temporary White House credentials, identified as Neil Munro of The Daily Caller. Munro was heard questioning whether the policy change will benefit American workers.
"This is the right thing to do for the American people," Obama retorted. When the reporter continued to shout questions, the president snapped, "I didn't ask for an argument."
Under the new policy, illegal immigrants eligible for the work permits must be under the age of 30, have come to the US under the age of 16, have continuously resided in America for the past five years and not have been convicted of a felony, a significant or multiple misdemeanor offenses or posed a threat to national security or public safety.
They also must either be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, or be honorably discharged veterans of the US armed forces or Coast Guard.
Illegal immigrants must prove to the US government that they meet the criteria to take advantage of the new policy. The Obama administration estimates as many as 800,000 people may apply for the work permits and the deferral deportation.
Those who qualify will be able to receive the work permits for two years, subject to renewal, Napolitano said in the statement announcing the change.