Washington - The Obama administration will relax enforcement of deportation rules for young people brought to the United States without legal status, a softening of immigration policy that is likely to appeal to Hispanic voters in an election year.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Friday that illegal immigrants up to 30 years old who came to the United States as children and do not pose a risk to national security would be eligible to stay in the country and allowed to apply for work permits.

“Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” Napolitano said in a statement. “But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case.”

Immigration is a big issue for Hispanics, an important voting bloc in the United States that could help determine who wins the Nov. 6 election between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican.

Obama supports immigration reform but has been unable to gain bipartisan support in Congress for a law that would address the issue. During the Republican presidential primary, Romney took a strong stance against illegal immigration.

Napolitano said the administration's new stance was meant to create a more efficient and productive immigration policy.

“It is not amnesty,” she told reporters, adding that the move was well within the framework of existing U.S. law.

To be eligible for the new enforcement rules, a person must have come to the United States under 16 years old and have resided in the country for at least five years. They must be in school or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They must also be free of convictions of felony or significant misdemeanor offenses. - Reuters