The internal draft written by officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services outlines ways that the government could provide "relief" to illegal immigrants - including delaying deportation for some, perhaps indefinitely, or granting green cards to others - in the absence of legislation revamping the system.
It's emerging as chances fade in this election year for a measure Obama favors to put the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. on a path to legal status, and as debate rages over an Arizona law targeting people suspected of being in the country illegally.
"This memorandum offers administrative relief options to promote family unity, foster economic growth, achieve significant process improvements and reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization," reads the 11-page document, which was written in April of this year and addressed to the agency's director.
"In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform," officials wrote, "USCIS can extend benefits and/or protections to many individuals or groups."
The memo provoked a backlash by Republicans who called it evidence that Obama is trying to devise a backdoor "amnesty" policy without political consensus to enact a new law.
"Now we find out the truth: while saying one thing to the public, the Obama administration is scheming to ensure that immigration laws are not enforced," said Rep. Lamar Smith, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican who obtained the memo, said the steps outlined in it could apply to millions.
"They're trying to circumvent Congress because they can't get something passed," Beth Pellett-Levine said Friday.
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the agency, said the internal document "should not be equated with official action or policy," and represented only "deliberation and exchange of ideas."
"We continue to maintain that comprehensive bipartisan legislation, coupled with smart, effective enforcement, is the only solution to our nation's immigration challenges," he said in a statement.