Continuing its push to realign immigration enforcement, the Obama administration announced on Friday a sweeping initiative that would shield many young immigrants from deportation.

Under the new policy, immigrants younger than 30 who arrived in the United States before they were 16, have resided here for at least five consecutive years, have clean criminal records and are currently enrolled in school, have received a high school degree or have been honorably discharged from the military will not be subject to deportation. That includes immigrants who are currently facing pending removal cases.

The affected population is roughly the same as the one that would be covered by the DREAM Act, a stalled piece of legislation that is a priority for immigration advocates. President Obama has joined Democrats in calling for the bill's passage, but Republicans have blocked it on the grounds that it amounts to amnesty.

Unlike the DREAM Act, the policy announced on Friday would not open a path to citizenship. Eligible immigrants would be eligible to apply for work authorization, although there is no guarantee they would receive work permits, and they would have to apply to renew their status every two years.

Immigration Enforcement Policy Adjustment

In a conference call with reporters, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano cast the decision as part of the administration's effort to refocus enforcement resources on immigrants who have criminal convictions or a record of multiple immigration offenses.

This grant of deferred action is not immunity. It is not amnesty, Napolitano said. It is an exercise of discretion so these young people are not in the removal system. It will help us continue to streamline immigration enforcement and ensure resources are not spent unwisely.

Hailing the new policy as the right thing to do, Napolitano noted that many of the immigrants who would be eligible are assimilated members of American society who have already contributed to our country in significant ways.

Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner, but they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case, Napolitano said.

Senior administration officials who requested to speak on background said that the new policy could affect as many as 800,000 undocumented immigrants. That prediction is hazy in part because immigrants would need to come forward and submit documentation. Adjudicators would decide whether or not to grant work permits on a case-by-case basis.

The officials said that the initiative falls within the Obama administration's legal authority to dictate how immigration laws are enforced, but they stressed that Congress still needs to act on comprehensive reform.

We don't consider this a permanent solution for anyone, one official said.

The new policy is in a sense an extension of an initiative, first set into motion last summer, that directs Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel to use their prosecutorial discretion to decide which cases to pursue. In addition to urging field agents to focus on cases in which immigrants had criminal records or posed a public safety threat, the directive empowered judges and attorneys to close cases in which immigrants met criteria that included clean criminal records or deep family ties.

This action helped us ensure that incoming immigration cases and existing caseloads more closely correspond with our priorities and that low priority cases don't clog the immigration courts, Napolitano said during the conference call, calling the new initiative consistent with our existing use of prosecutorial discretion.