WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States as children will be able to avoid deportation and get work permits under an order on Friday by President Barack Obama.
In a move that seemed to be aimed at Hispanics whose enthusiasm for voting in the November 6 election could be crucial to Obama's re-election chances, the president acted to potentially protect 800,000 people from deportation proceedings for at least two years.
Obama, who previously was reluctant to impose such an order even as Republicans in Congress blocked immigration reform bills he supported, called his action "the right thing to do."
His announcement was on the 30th anniversary of a Supreme Court decision that said children of illegal-immigrant parents were entitled to public education in the United States.
It allowed Obama, whose administration has faced criticism from some Hispanic groups for deporting about 400,000 illegal immigrants a year, to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Republican Mitt Romney, his opponent in the election. Romney, in trying to appeal to his party's most conservative voters, has taken a harsh stance against illegal immigration.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama emphasized that his stop-gap policy did not grant amnesty or citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. He said that such people "are Americans in their hearts and minds; in every single way but one - on paper."
Both Democrats who praised Obama's move and Republicans who attacked it agreed that Congress ultimately should decide the permanent fate of immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Most Republicans continue to clamor for more law enforcement before considering any loosening of immigration rules for the estimated 12 million people who are in the country illegally. Obama emphasized various steps he has taken to secure the southwestern U.S. border, the entry point for most of the immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Obama's order was the second time in two months that he has reached out to a key Democratic voting constituency. Last month, he said for the first time that he supports legalizing gay marriages, a move that while largely symbolic, won him praise and campaign donations from the gay and lesbian community.
Friday's appeal to Hispanics came at a time when Obama's popularity has dipped amid new worries of a weakening economy and a deepening European financial crisis that further threatens American jobs.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the deeply fractured U.S. Congress have blocked most of Obama's domestic initiatives, some of which he said would have created millions of jobs.
Obama's order came a week before he is scheduled to address a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Florida. Romney also is set to address the group next week.
The meeting is likely to feature Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who has pushed for legislation that would help children of illegal immigrants.
Obama's order also came as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge to Arizona's strict immigration laws that target people living and working in the state illegally. A ruling could come as early as next week.
Romney, campaigning in New Hampshire, said Obama's move made it more difficult to reach a long-term solution for young illegal immigrants "who come here through no fault of their own." He said he would like to see legislation to help such people but did not offer a plan of his own.
Early this year, during the Republican presidential primaries, Romney said he favored "self-deportation" in which illegal immigrants realize they would be better off returning to their native countries after employment restrictions left them unable to find work in the United States.
Other Republicans were more harsh in criticizing Obama.
"Today's announcement by President Obama is a politically motivated power grab that does nothing to further the debate but instead adds additional confusion and uncertainty to our broken immigration system," said Obama's 2008 Republican challenger for the White House, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Another Republican, House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, called Obama's order a "breach of faith" that Smith said will have "horrible consequences" for unemployed Americans who are looking for jobs only to find that illegal immigrants will work for less money.
Some Republicans suggested that Obama's move could face legal challenges but several law professors said Friday that it is unlikely that Obama's order could be challenged successfully in court. Presidents have broad executive power for such temporary orders and prosecutorial discretion.
George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr said criminal enforcement is the domain of the executive branch and deportation decisions would fall under that authority.
University of Houston law professor Michael A. Olivas said Friday's directive is well within a president's usual authority.
Political analysts cast Obama's move as a savvy strategy for what could be a very close race for the White House.
"The Obama administration knows it's in a very tight race and if the margins that it enjoyed among unmarried women, gays, Hispanics and blacks don't hold, then he might end up on the wrong end of this thing," said Cal Jillson, a politics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "So he's going around and touching all these bases."
Under Obama's plan, those who qualify would be allowed to live and work in the United States for two years and could be eligible for extensions, the Obama administration said.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who made the initial announcement of Obama's order on Friday, said that illegal immigrants up to 30 years old who came to the United States as children and do not pose a risk to national security would be eligible to stay in the country and allowed to apply for work permits.
To avoid deportation under Obama's plan, a person must have come to the United States under the age of 16 and have resided in the country for at least five years.
They must be in school or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They also must not have been convicted of any felony or significant misdemeanor offenses.
Obama has long supported measures to allow the children of illegal immigrants to study and work in the United States, but efforts to pass such measures in Congress have failed amid objections by Republicans.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act passed the House in 2010, when Democrats controlled that chamber. But it fell a few votes short in the Senate, amid strong Republican opposition.
Friday's announcement was a victory for Hispanic groups that have long called on Obama to use his executive powers and it marked somewhat of a reversal by the administration. Last July, in a speech to the National Council of La Raza, Obama said he was reluctant to bypass Congress.
There are up to 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children and who remain in the country, according to immigration group estimates. U.S. officials said the new measures would affect roughly 800,000 people.
Most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanics. There are now 51 million Hispanics living in the United States out of a total population of 309 million.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Samson Reiny, Alister Bull, Andy Sullivan, Laura MacInnis and Joan Biskupic; Editing by David Lindsey and Bill Trott