In a move to reform the US immigration system, Washington will stop deporting many students and other illegal immigrants who are not a public safety threat and permit them to work legally.
A new federal group will review the 300,000 backlogged deportation cases with an eye toward prosecuting criminals and other high-priority cases under the new immigration policy announced by the Obama administration.
However, the cases of many upstanding high school and college students who were brought here illegally, military veterans, and adults with no criminal record and strong family ties to the United States, will be effectively closed.
"This case-by-case approach will enhance public safety," wrote homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano in a letter to members of Congress.
"Immigration judges will be able to more swiftly adjudicate high-priority cases, such as those involving convicted felons."
Opponents criticised the move as "administrative amnesty" or "backdoor amnesty," while Democratic leaders cheered the change and some immigrant advocates said it was not enough.
The policy does not affect most of the more than 10 million people estimated to be living in the United States illegally; it only favours those who have already been placed in deportation proceedings.
Napolitano said the new policy change would not negate reforming immigration laws and "will not alleviate the need for passage of the Dream Act," which would give legal status to illegal immigrant students who attend college or join the military.
"President Obama has called the Dream Act the right thing to do for the young people it would affect, and the right thing to do for the country," she said.
Some immigrant activists said the announcement fell short of the immigration reform many have been fighting for.