Continued from page 1

On Friday, after he reversed himself, immigrant-rights groups congratulated him, but said they’d told him all along he could do it.

“We knew you could, Mr. President,” said Angelica Salas, director of a Los Angeles immigration rights group.

The administration says it’s not doing an about-face, saying it’s not unilaterally enacting the Dream Act because it can’t grant full legal status.

But that was not the question Mr. Obama was asked at the Univision town hall. Jorge Ramos, the veteran political journalist who ran the event, never mentioned the Dream Act, instead specifically asking whether Mr. Obama would “be able to stop deportations of the students.”

The Homeland Security Department last week declined to answer whether Ms. Napolitano had received a new legal opinion that changed her mind and convinced her she did, in fact, have this authority.

Some congressional Republicans have said Mr. Obama’s move oversteps his legal bounds, and a court challenge could be in the offing. And Mr. Obama’s own past statements will likely come into play.

A Homeland Security aide defended the decision, saying it’s the latest in a line of decisions about “prosecutorial discretion” the administration has made. Last year, Ms. Napolitano’s department issued guidance saying it would drop deportation cases against illegal immigrants who didn’t have major criminal backgrounds.

“This policy is an exercise of prosecutorial discretion designed to ensure that our immigration laws are enforced in a strong and sensible manner,” the aide said, adding that the new authority is still only “case-by-case.”

The Dream Act has failed several times in Congress. The most recent failure was during the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress, when it was blocked in the Senate on a bipartisan filibuster. Since then, support has deteriorated further.

But Democrats have reintroduced a version, and several Republicans are working on their own legislation.

Rep. David Rivera, Florida Republican, introduced a version several weeks ago that would grant a multitier path to citizenship to a much narrower category than the administration‘s. His legislation would apply only to students who have graduated high school and are attending a four-year college, and they would only earn a path to citizenship if they earned a degree from the college.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who frequently is mentioned as a possible Romney running mate, is also working on a version.