The White House has repeatedly said it wanted to work with Congress on a more sensible and more humane immigration policy, but the requests haven’t gone anywhere. Yesterday, the Obama administration decided to act on its own.

The Obama administration announced Thursday that it would suspend deportation proceedings against many illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security or public safety.

The new policy is expected to help thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as young children, graduated from high school and want to go on to college or serve in the armed forces.

White House and immigration officials said they would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” to focus enforcement efforts on cases involving criminals and people who have flagrantly violated immigration laws.

The element of discretion is key here — the administration can’t change the law unilaterally, but it can choose to prioritize among cases. As of yesterday, felons and security threats will be (and stay) at the top of the list, while young people who entered the country illegally with their families as children will not face deportation.

If this latter part sounds kind of familiar, it’s because the DREAM Act is intended to help these same young people. Republicans have refused to allow the legislation to advance, and while the bill is still worthwhile, yesterday’s move from the Obama administration will directly benefit those kids who stand to benefit from the proposal.

The New York Times, citing White House officials, also stressed that DREAM Act kids aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit.

White House officials said the new policy could help illegal immigrants with family members in the United States. The White House is interpreting “family” to include partners of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. […]

Cecilia Munoz, a White House official who helped develop the new policy, said officials would suspend deportation proceedings in low-priority cases that, for example, involve “military veterans and the spouses of active-duty military personnel.”

Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell, said the new policy could also benefit “illegal immigrants who were stopped for traffic violations and thrown into deportation proceedings, as well as people whose only violation of immigration law is that they stayed beyond the expiration of their visas or worked here illegally.”

And the shift in deportation focus will not only benefit families — the Department of Homeland Security also noted yesterday it will also help the larger system, removing low-priority cases from crowded courts and freeing up law enforcement to put their energies into legitimate public-safety threats.

It’s an overdue breakthrough and a very encouraging development. It doesn’t remove the need for legislation — the underlying law still needs systemic reform — but it does largely remove the threat of deportation for those without criminal records and who pose no security threat.

Given how little we’ve seen to cheer about lately, this terrific news is most welcome.

Steve Benen

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.