WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's decision Friday to block the deportation of young illegal immigrants and allow them to obtain work permits thrust a sensitive issue into an election already thick with tension over the economy, while highlighting the growing political clout of Hispanics.
"We are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids," President Barack Obama said from the Rose Garden, calling the policy, which could affect hundreds of thousands of young people, "the right thing to do."
Underscoring the emotion surrounding immigration and jobs, a reporter for a conservative website shouted, "What about American workers?" Obama had minutes earlier rebuked the man for interrupting him.
The surprise news came a week before Obama heads to Florida to address a major Hispanic group in Orlando and to campaign in Tampa, and it leaps ahead of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been working on a similar legislative proposal for three months but has yet to release details.
Obama may have stripped away any momentum Rubio had, driving a wedge into a Republican Party that has struggled over its immigration stances. Rubio and others, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have called for less heated rhetoric and a more accommodating policy, particularly for younger immigrants.
"Today's announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short-term answer to a long-term problem," Rubio said. "And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one."
Obama managed to knock off stride GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had begun the first day of a five-day bus tour on the economy.
"I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis," Romney said in New Hampshire, sounding more open on the issue than he has before.
But Romney, who will also appear at the Hispanic conference in Orlando, echoed Rubio in calling it a short-term fix. Obama conceded as much and urged Congress to act.
"Let's be clear: This is not amnesty, this is not immunity," he said. "This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix."
The new policy calls for ending deportations of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are now younger than 30. They must have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military.
They also can apply for work permits that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times they can be renewed, though if Obama were to lose re-election a new administration could make changes.
"This is a huge win. Our community has shown its muscle," said Gaby Pacheco, an immigration reform advocate from Miami.
Daniela Pelaez, a valedictorian at North Miami Senior High who faced deportation this year, said it would put more pressure on Congress to enact permanent rules. "I'm amazed," she said. "I'm still in shock."
But the new policy does not offer a path to citizenship, which many immigration advocates seek. That puts Obama in line with what Rubio had been working on as an alternative to the Dream Act, or the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.
That proposal has languished for years largely because it included a pathway to citizenship, something critics consider amnesty. Many Republicans on Friday said Obama's new approach does the same thing.
"By granting amnesty to potentially hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, President Obama's unilateral policy shift will have massive ramifications for unemployed Americans looking for jobs," said U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando. "It is time for the president to start acting like he actually cares about the well-being of the American people instead of winning his re-election."
The sentiment illustrates the long odds Rubio's proposal faced in the House. He has been working behind the scenes to build support among fellow Republican senators but it's unclear what will happen now.
With the threat of deportation lifted, there could be less urgency to act. Moreover, Obama's decision reinforced sharp partisan lines.
"The president has dramatically set back any hopes for consensus, on the left and the right," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.
Administration officials said the policy had been in the works for a while, framing it as a way to allow immigration enforcement officials to focus on public safety threats and border security. Still, Obama has previously said his hands were tied on what he could do. The new posture emphasized the political calculation.
His administration has been criticized for its aggressive deportation policy, causing strife among the Hispanic community and dampening support headed into what will surely be a tight election. In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 people and is expected to deport about 400,000 this year.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent, but a separate survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of the president's handling of deportations.
Obama also has been faulted by Hispanics for not following through on a 2008 campaign promise to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
"There's no reason we can't come together and get this done," Obama said Friday.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.