Undocumented immigrants without criminal records will be offered a respite from the threat of deportation after the Obama administration announced plans on Thursday to offer them a chance to apply for a work permit.
The Department of Homeland Security said it will focus on sending back convicted criminals and those who might be a national security or public safety threat.
The policy change will mean a case-by-case review of approximately 300,000 undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation in federal immigration courts, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
Advocates for an immigration overhaul contend the administration has failed to live up to its promise to only deport the "worst of the worst," as President Barack Obama has said.
"From a law enforcement and public safety perspective, DHS enforcement resources must continue to be focused on our highest priorities," Napolitano wrote a group of senators involved in supporting immigration legislation. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
"Doing otherwise hinders our public safety mission — clogging immigration court dockets and diverting DHS enforcement resources away from the individuals who pose a threat to public safety."
In June, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent a memo to agents outlining when and how they could use discretion in immigration cases. That guidance also covered those potentially subject to a legislative proposal, known as the DREAM Act, intended to give young illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military a chance at legal status.
The memo from John Morton also suggested that agents consider how long someone has been in the United States, whether that person's spouse or children are U.S. citizens and whether or not that person has a criminal record.
A senior administration official said delaying deportation decisions in cases for some noncriminals would allow the quicker deportation of serious criminals. The indefinite stay will not give undocumented immigrants a path to legal permanent residency, but will let them apply for a work permit.
"As a matter of law, they are eligible for a work authorization card, basically a tax payer ID card, but that decision is made separately and on a case-by-case basis," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the policy change before it was announced.
The official said the change will give authorities the chance to keep some cases from even reaching the court system. The message to agents in the field, the official said, would be "you do not need to put everyone you come across in the system."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime supporter of immigration overhaul and the DREAM Act, applauded the policy change.
"These students are the future doctors, lawyers, teachers and, maybe, senators, who will make America stronger," Durbin said in an emailed statement. "We need to be doing all we can to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here, not wasting increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely remember."
Republicans have criticized the DREAM Act and other immigration legislation that would provide a path to legal status as amnesty. Following Morton's June memo, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, introduced a bill to block the administration's use of prosecutorial discretion and called the use of that discretion "backdoor amnesty."
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Illinois, who has railed against the president for his immigration policies, this time praised Obama for this decision.
"I have been vocal in my criticism of the President and his Administration over the dramatic increase in deportations on his watch and have traveled the country urging him to use his power under existing law to do what he can to help," he said.
"This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for and that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.