President Barack Obama announced an executive order Friday that would temporarily stop the deportations of young illegal immigrants and offer them work permits instead.
Speaking from the White House, the president said young immigrants who are in the United States illegally but have generally abided by the law during their time here would qualify, effective immediately.
Homeland Services estimated that up to 800,000 immigrants would be affected by the policy change.
Today's policy announcement by President Obama will not create a path toward citizenship. Under the policy, illegal immigrants who qualify would not have to fear being deported for at least two years, although the policy could be revoked under a new administration.
"It is the right thing to do for the American people and here's why," the president said. "These young people are going to make extraordinary contributions and are already making contributions to our society. I've got a young person who is serving in our military, protecting us and our freedom. The notion that in some ways we would treat them as expendable makes no sense."
To be considered for the program, illegal immigrants would have to have come to the United States before age 16 and would have to have lived in the U.S. for at least five continuous years.
They would also need to be enrolled in school or have a high school diploma, a GED or have served in the military.
Additionally, they will need a generally clean criminal record and can not be older than age 30.
"This is not amnesty," Obama said. "This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop gap measure."
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement that the country's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner. She went on to say that they are not designed to remove productive young people adding, "Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here."
The new policy shares some similarities to the DREAM Act, which did not pass the U.S. Senate in 2010.
It would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and attended college or served in the military.
Immigration advocates applauded the president's proposal.
"We don't see congress taking action on the much-needed DREAM Act that would provide permanent relief for the dreamers, so this was an important time and a very welcome announcement from the administration," said Laura Vasquez, an immigration legislative analyst for the Council of La Raza.
The timing of the election-year announcement, however, has some, especially those on the right, questioning the President's motives and leadership.
"The way to do something is not to do it by executive fiat," said Rory Cooper, the communication director of the Heritage Foundation. "I would prefer that he step off that campaign trail for an issue this serious and discuss it with Congress in a way that it should be discussed."