Every year, tens of thousands of young illegal immigrants graduate from American high schools, but are quickly stuck — they can’t qualify for college aid, and they can’t work legally. America is the only home they’ve ever known — in most cases, they were, at a very young age, brought into the country illegally by their parents — but at 18, they have few options.

The DREAM Act, which has traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support, provides a path to citizenship for these young immigrants — graduate from high school, get conditional permanent residency status, go to college or serve in the military, and become eligible for citizenship.

Last year, the measure had the votes to pass Congress, but not to overcome a Republican filibuster. With a GOP-led House, the proposal is dead on Capitol Hill. But as Suzy Khimm reports today, the Obama administration is using its executive authority “to shape immigration policy in line with the DREAM Act.”

Since taking office, Obama has prioritized the deportation of undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes and threaten public safety. Now his administration has moved to ensure that federal immigration agents and attorneys are following such guidelines in the field — while empowering them to take their focus off certain undocumented immigrants who meet a host of criteria. In a June 17 memo to ICE employees, the agency’s director, John Morton, outlined 19 factors that could warrant the use of “prosecutorial discretion” and prevent certain immigrants from being deported, on a case-by-case basis.

According to the memo, there is a range of issues that federal agents, attorneys, and other officials should consider in deciding whether to pursue deportation. They include: whether the person is a military veteran; has made “contributions to the community”; acts as a caretaker of the infirm or disabled; or is very young, very old, pregnant, or nursing.

Morton’s order also instructs federal officials to weigh the circumstances of an undocumented immigrant’s arrival in the US — especially if he or she came as a young child — and whether the individual graduated from high school or college, or is currently pursuing higher education.

This is not to say certain groups have been shielded from possible deportation altogether, but Obama’s immigration chief wants ICE officials to use discretion before deporting the very people who’d benefit from the DREAM Act.

Mary Giovagnoli, director for the Immigration Policy Center, told Khimm the Obama administration’s move could help “ameliorate some of the harshest consequences of immigration law.” David Leopold, an immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, added that the change in emphasis represents “a paradigm shift.”

Ideally, this wouldn’t be necessary. Republicans who helped write the DREAM Act — I’m looking in your direction, Dick Lugar and Orrin Hatch — should do the right thing, even if their right-wing base doesn’t like it.

But while we wait, it’s heartening the Obama administration is using its power wisely on this.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.