HUNDREDS of thousands of illegal immigrants are to be allowed to stay and work in the US after President Barack Obama offered them a partial amnesty in a major announcement yesterday.
In a surprise move bound to boost support among Latino voters in battleground states, the president said his administration would stop deporting law-abiding, undocumented young adults who were brought to the US as children and would instead grant them work permits.
He said the directive would "mend our nation's immigration policy to make it more fair, more efficient and more just".
"These are young people who study in our schools, play in our neighbourhoods, are friends with our kids and pledge allegiance to our flag," he added.
"They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
Mr Obama maintained that the move "is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix", but added: "This is the right thing to do."
America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform pressure group, described the decision as "the biggest news on immigration in 25 years".
Up to 800,000 are to be eligible for the scheme, which is open to those aged 30 or under who have been in the country five years, are in education or are military veterans, and have no major convictions.
There are up to 11 million illegal migrants in the US, up to two million of whom are young people brought in by their parents, according to migration group estimates.
The order directly ushered in some parts of the Dream Act, a plan that went further by offering a path to citizenship to young migrants, which was blocked by Republicans in Congress in 2010.
The proposed Act, which the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged to veto, is a key priority for many Latino voters, whose ballots could prove decisive in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada in November's presidential election.
Republicans were furious at being circumvented. Marco Rubio, a senator for Florida, claimed the order would wreck attempts to comprehensively overhaul illegal immigration.
Viridiana Hernandez, a 21-year-old undocumented immigrant in Arizona, said: "It is a huge step forward and a relief for students like me."
Activists, however, expressed concern about what would happen to applicants who "out" themselves if Mr Obama is ousted in November by Mr Romney, who could scrap the change. (© Daily Telegraph, London)