Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants will get a chance to stay in the United States and work under a new policy announced Friday by the Obama administration.

President Obama's action removes the threat of deportation for as many as 800,000 immigrants nationally -- including hundreds in Minnesota -- who are under 30 and came to the United States as children. It does not offer them citizenship or permanent residency.

"Let's be clear, this is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship, this is not a permanent fix," Obama said from the White House Rose Garden. "This is the right thing to do." He said the change would become effective immediately.

The move bypasses Congress and achieves some of the goals of the Dream Act, the blocked legislation that would establish a path toward citizenship for young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military.

Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, accused the president of circumventing Congress for political gain and favoring illegal immigrants over unemployed U.S. citizens.

But Minnesota students and immigrant advocate groups celebrated the policy as a historic step in easing young immigrants' fear of deportation.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said it "offers the opportunity for young kids who have done everything right within their control to think about a much brighter future."

He added, however, that more must be done.

Under the plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation and eligible for renewable, two-year work permits if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, and graduated from a U.S. high school, or earned a GED, or served in the military.

'Super happy'

That pretty much describes Alberto Perez, who grew up in Tepic, Mexico, and came to Minnesota when he was 15 years old. Although he initially resisted the move, knowing that applying to and paying for college would be more complicated in the United States, he now views it as "the best decision of our lives."

Perez's family applied to become legal residents in 2001, based on his aunt's citizenship. But such cases are not a high priority, he said, and although the application was approved in 2005, his attorney expects it will take four more years before they're granted a hearing.

Meanwhile, Perez completed a bachelor's degree, is working on dual master's degrees at the University of Minnesota and is now considering a Ph.D. Despite his education, he doubted his prospects without a Social Security card.

But Friday morning, he found his Facebook feed inundated with news he refused to believe until he heard Obama say it himself.

"I was super, super happy ... It's a very temporary status, but it's much better than nothing," Perez said.

Temporary protection

Obama's announcement comes in an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be critical in swing states such as Florida.

Enthusiasm for the president among Hispanic voters has been tempered by the slow economic recovery, his inability to win congressional support for a broad overhaul of immigration laws and his administration's aggressive deportation policy.

Tony Payan, scholar for immigration studies at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the new policy was a wise way for Obama, given the political paralysis, to "chip away at the immigration problem."

Immigrants who qualify, who he estimated make up about 10 percent of the undocumented population, are "the easiest," he said. "These are the young, smart Hispanics who are probably the most integrated of all the undocumented migrants because they grew up in the United States.

"Nobody wants to be mean to the young -- especially those working hard, going to school."

In an e-mail to supporters Friday, Kline wrote that Obama "breached faith with the American people by granting amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants."

Past generations of immigrants, Kline said, "came to this country legally to work hard, learn English, assimilate to the culture, and make contributions to this great nation. They would be the first to tell you that we are also a nation of laws and we must enforce our laws. Illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking our laws."

Keller compares the new status of the young immigrants to those of Liberians, many of whom get similar protections.

"It doesn't lead to anything permanent," he said. "Our Liberian client who has been here 21 years in that status is no closer to citizenship today than he was in 1991."

Marque Jensen, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, said that there was "a lot of excitement" at his offices on Lake Street in south Minneapolis.

He said that the two-year work permits give illegal immigrants a reason to continue school.

Before, students worked hard with "no promise that if they graduated, they would even be able to get a job," he said. "Now, it's like a brick wall in front of them is just falling over."

Several Minnesota business leaders praised the action as a possible boost to the state's aging workforce.

Michael Fernandez, Cargill's corporate vice president for corporate affairs, said that immigrants work at both ends of the company's spectrum -- from highly educated employees in headquarters labs to manual laborers in meat processing plants across the country.

Fernandez said that Obama's order "sounds good" but was just one piece of a complicated puzzle. "This is not a one-and-done process," he said. "There are lots of elements to immigration reform that we think are important."

The Associated Press and staff writer Asha Anchan contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168