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“These young people did not make the decision to come to this country, and it is not the American way to punish children for their parents’ actions,” he said.

Indeed, illegal immigrant youths have long been the toughest cases in the illegal immigration debate. Often they were brought to the U.S. as children and in some cases babies or toddlers, and have no knowledge of the countries where they were born.

In her statement Ms. Napolitano said her department will stop deporting those illegal immigrants who are under 30 years of age, have graduated from high school, gotten an equivalency diploma or joined the U.S. military and don’t have a felony or major misdemeanor on their record.

The exact number of people who would qualify is unclear, though the Migration Policy Institute has calculated that at least one version of the Dream Act introduced in Congress could have granted status to 2.1 million people.

That’s also a lower bar than some in Congress had envisioned for granting legal status to illegal immigrants.

Ms. Napolitano’s decision doesn’t automatically put these illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, which is what immigrant-rights advocates call for. But it does grant them temporary leave to remain in the U.S.

Mr. Obama has been under pressure for years to take this step, but he had repeatedly said he didn’t have the authority.

“The fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce. And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the Dream Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true,” Mr. Obama said last year.

And Ms. Napolitano last year specifically rejected the kind of categorical move she made on Friday, telling senators she only had the authority to examine cases individually.

Friday’s move comes just a week before Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak at a major gathering of Hispanic-rights activists in Florida — the beginning of a summer series of conferences among different Hispanic groups.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would veto the Dream Act. He said he only favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant young adults who join the military.

Hours after the Obama announcement, Mr. Romney said the move could make it harder to find a long-term fix.

“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 so they know what their future would be in this country,” he said in New Hampshire to reporters. He walked away when asked whether he would reverse the executive order if elected president.

The Dream Act last came before Congress in 2010 when it was defeated on a bipartisan filibuster.

Democrats have introduced their own legislation again this year, and called for the GOP to work with them on it.

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