Washington (CNN) — The Biden administration on Tuesday announced an executive action allowing certain undocumented spouses and children of US citizens to apply for lawful permanent residency without leaving the country – a sweeping election-year move that could offer deportation protections to hundreds of thousands of people.

The action will provide legal status and protections for about 500,000 American families and roughly 50,000 noncitizen children of immigrants under the age of 21 whose parent is married to a US citizen, a senior administration official said. It amounts to one of the federal government’s biggest relief programs for undocumented immigrants since the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was announced by then-President Barack Obama in 2012.

The action is aimed at appealing to key Latino constituencies in battleground states, including Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, that will be crucial for Biden’s chances to claim a second term. The move is an olive branch to immigration advocates and progressives, many of whom have sharply criticized Biden for previous restrictive actions, including taking steps this month to limit asylum processing at the US southern border.

The president formally announced the action during a White House event Tuesday marking the 12th anniversary of DACA: “Today’s a good day,” Biden said during the event in the White House’s East Room.

Under current federal law, an undocumented person who enters the United States and marries a US citizen must first request parole before applying for legal residency. That process requires them to leave the country if they were there illegally, upending their careers and families and creating uncertainty about whether they would be authorized to reenter.

Tuesday’s action allows those spouses to apply for residency without needing to leave the United States – a key change that the Biden administration argues will keep families intact.

CNN first reported last week that the administration was considering the move. The executive action is already facing legal challenges, but White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that the Biden administration believes the action falls “squarely within our legal authorities.”

To be eligible for the program, the person must have lived in the United States for at least 10 years and be legally married to a US citizen, according to a White House fact sheet. The application process will open by the end of the summer.

Lawful permanent residency, commonly known as obtaining a green card, allows immigrants to live and legally work in the United States. Green card holders cannot vote in federal US elections.

Tuesday’s executive action, along with Biden’s immigration policy more broadly, are likely themes in next week’s debate between Biden and his 2024 rival, former President Donald Trump. Biden on Tuesday said he was “not interested in playing politics” on the border – but still took an opportunity to slam his predecessor’s policies.

“When he was president,” Biden said of Trump, “he separated families and children at the border. And now he’s proposing to rip spouses and children from their families, homes and communities and place them in detention camps. He’s actually saying these things, it’s hard to believe it’s been said, but he’s actually saying these things out loud.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, the Biden campaign sought to contrast Trump’s immigration policies with measures that the Biden administration argues will keep families together.

“Families belong together – it’s that simple. It’s why President Biden’s actions today are so important, and it’s also a powerful stark reminder of Donald Trump’s unforgivable legacy of ripping crying children away from their parents when he put in place his family separation policy,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement.

The president teased the move last week while acknowledging many immigration activists have not been happy with some of his actions.

“For those who say the steps I’ve taken are too strict, I say to you – be patient,” Biden said. “In the weeks ahead – and I mean the weeks ahead – I will speak to how we can make our immigration system more fair and more just.”

Immigration-advocacy groups welcomed news of Biden’s announcement.

“By removing barriers that prevent spouses from staying with their families, he can fulfill his promise to protect those harmed by our broken immigration laws,” Todd Schulte, president of immigration-advocacy group FWD.us, said of Biden in a statement. “We encourage the president to act boldly and with the confidence of knowing Americans across the political spectrum support these responsible protections for individuals who have lived in our communities and proven their contributions to our country for years.”

Immigration experts note that individuals affected by the change are already eligible for green cards because of their marital status, but they are now able to apply from inside the US. Previously, individuals had to apply from outside the United States, and – if they had been in the country unlawfully – remain outside the US for 10 years.

The change in status could impact up to 550,000 individuals, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and allowing those individuals to seek higher-wage jobs could have sizable economic benefit.

“When you’re unauthorized, it freezes you in the underground economy,” Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told CNN. “These are people who have suppressed potential who will be free to work anywhere they want.”

Leading Senate Republicans sharply criticized Biden ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. Republican Whip John Thune accused the administration of creating more “pull factors” with the planned immigration action.

“They are increasing incentive for people to come here illegally,” Thune said. “I am sure they’ll be challenged.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, another Republican who has worked on immigration issues in the Senate, told CNN that the better solution would be to find a bipartisan bill. Tillis voted against the bipartisan border security bill earlier this year.

Some Democrats in the Senate praised Biden’s executive order while those in vulnerable seats tried towing a line.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren praised Biden’s decision while conceding his earlier executive order that restricted border crossings was “not how (I) would have approached it.”

“But I do appreciate that right now what the president is doing is he’s saying families are important to Americans, and that we’re going to do everything we can to protect the spouses of American citizens,” she said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a vulnerable Democrat from Ohio, declined to say if he supports the new executive order. “I do not know enough about this yet,” he told CNN.

“A good idea is that Congress finally pass the bipartisan border bill to secure the border and to pass an immigration bill. And presidents of both parties have failed and I’m hopeful that we do that and make a real difference,” he added.

Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat in a vulnerable seat, also declined to say if he supports Biden’s executive order. “I’ve got to look at what the president – I haven’t seen the proposal, I’ll wait until I see it,” he told CNN.

However, he did praise Biden’s executive order from earlier this month aimed at restricting border crossings.

“I think that was the right thing to do, to make that proposal, it’s obviously being challenged,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Delia Ramirez of Illinois, whose husband is a DACA recipient, said the executive action was welcome news – but added there is still “more work to do.”

“There are still hundreds of thousands of people still in the shadows who are going to watch the news today and ask themselves does this finally mean that I finally get out of the shadows and for many, not yet,” Ramirez told CNN moments before she joined her husband, Boris, at the White House event for Biden’s announcement.

Biden also announced Tuesday that his administration will facilitate the employment-visa process for people who have graduated from college and have a high-skilled job offer.

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