This could have far-reaching implications for the presidential race, and could complicate GOP efforts to make inroads among Latinos, a crucial constituency in key states Obama needs to offset Rust Belt losses:

The Obama administration will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives. The election-year initiative addresses a top priority of an influential Latino electorate that has been vocal in its opposition to administration deportation policies.

The policy change, described to The Associated Press by two senior administration officials, will affect as many as 800,000 immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation. It also bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, a long-sought but never enacted plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who have attended college or served in the military.

The policy does not accomplish what the Dem DREAM Act would do — put young people who were brought here illegally on a path to citizenship — but it would effectively accomplish what Marco Rubio’s alternative was said to be geared towards accomplishing. As Steve Benen notes, this will be seen as a major policy breakthrough by progressives, and shows that Obama isn’t prepared to wait for Congress on the issue any longer.

Many Republicans have warned that the harsh immigration rhetoric during the GOP primary, which was echoed with particular stridency by Mitt Romney, is imperiling any hopes of making inroads among this constituency, whose share of the vote is growing and could be critical in states like Colorado and Nevada. Romney has said he would veto the Dem DREAM Act — which risked further alienating Lations — and the GOP DREAM Act (which doesn’t actually exist yet in the form of legislation) was widely seen as a way to begin reparing relations with them.

The question now is whether Republicans will be able to support the new initiative at all, now that Obama has put his name on it. Republicans will likely try to take credit for it by arguing that Rubio’s work on the DREAM alternative made this happen. But it was already unclear whether Republicans — Romney included — would have the room to back such an alternative, given the GOP base’s passions on the issue. So what many Republicans will likely do now is object to the new initiative on the basis of process, arguing that Obama’s end run around Congress represents tyranny and the like.

Romney had previously avoided taking a position on Rubio’s DREAM Act, presumably because of worries that supporting it would anger the right. Indeed, his lack of maneuvering room on the issue was captured by his own immigration adviser, Kris Kobach, a nationally respected voice on the right, who insisted that any initiative that grants any legal status to those who came here illegally should be a non-starter among conservatives.*

But now Romney will likely be pressed to say whether he supports the new initiative, which means making a choice between the Kobach camp and the Rubio camp. The fact that this is now Obama’s iniative could make this choice even more politically complex. It’s a subject that should come up this weekend during Romney’s interview with Bob Schieffer.


UPDATE: Kobach’s position is that anything that grants any kind of legal status to those who came here illegally should be a nonstarter among conservatives. In other words, many conservatives have an even harder line on this. I’ve edited the above to fix.

UPDATE II: Utah’s conservative Republican attorney general endorses Obama’s move, confirming it’s perfectly within presidential power.

UPDATE III: Here’s Mitt Romney’s full statement:

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. I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution because an executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter — it can be reversed by subsequent presidents. I’d like to see legislation that deals with this issue, and I happen to agree with Marco Rubio as he looked at this issue. He said that this is an important matter, that we have to find a long-term solution, but that the president’s action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult. If I’m president, we’ll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the action of their parents.”