On Wednesday, one of the most sweeping changes in U.S. immigration policy in decades went into effect when an estimated 1.7 million children of undocumented immigrants became eligible to apply for the temporary right to work and go to school in this country without fear of being deported. Under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in June, the federal government will no longer deport undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 who came to this country as children if they meet certain conditions.

In an election year, critics will probably dismiss President Obama's motives for ordering the change as a ploy to win Latino votes in November. But such complaints are short-sighted and overlook a much larger reality: Having invested so much already in these young people through our schools and other public institutions, America simply can't afford to throw away the enormous asset they represent for the nation's future. That's an economic fact of life that presidents increasingly will have to reckon with no matter which party they belong to.

Under the new policy, somewhat awkwardly titled Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, children of undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31 can now apply for a temporary legal status that would allow them continue their educations or careers. To qualify, they must have arrived in this country before they were 16, have lived here country continuously for five years, be enrolled in or have completed high school or served in the military, and have a have a clean criminal record. If granted, their temporary legal status would have to be renewed every two years.

The change mandated under the executive order signed in June by President Obama may be the country's last best hope for breaking the decade-old stalemate over immigration policy in Washington. Still, it is far from perfect. It won't, for example, provide immigrants' children with the path to citizenship envisioned in the president's proposed DREAM Act, which failed to pass Congress in 2010. Nor does it address the much larger problem of comprehensive immigration reform for the millions more people who are in this country illegally and don't fit the criteria in the president's the order.

What the president's order does do, however, is give young people who want to improve their lives a way of doing so without the constant fear of being suddenly uprooted from the only home they have ever known and sent to another country that is as foreign to them as it would be to a native-born American. The very fact of being eligible to apply for legal status under the president's order shows these young people have been doing the right things — going to school, working at a job and staying out of trouble with the law. That's exactly the sort of behavior we ought to be encouraging among the nation's young people, and those who live up to that standard aren't a threat to society but an asset — and a valuable one at that — no matter where they were born. It is the same logic that Maryland lawmakers applied when enacting legislation that will allow some illegal immigrants to attend state colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, provided it survives a referendum attempt this fall.

The Obama administration has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants over the last four years, many of whom were people with criminal records or those whom the authorities for one reason or another considered dangerous. But it would be wrong to lump young people with the potential to contribute to society together with violent criminals and drug dealers just because they had no say in their parents' decision to bring them here when they were children. If nothing else, Mr. Obama's order will give young people who have spent their entire their lives here worried about not being "real" Americans a chance to realize their dream, and both they and the country they love will be the better for it.