Barack Obama is ordering far-reaching changes to the US immigration system that will protect nearly five million people from deportation, testing the limits of his presidential powers and inviting a showdown with newly-emboldened Republicans.
He sought to break a stalemate in America’s long-simmering debate over immigration by cutting out Congress, confronting Republicans who swept congressional elections earlier this month and all but ensuring that the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a televised address President Obama described the most sweeping changes to fractured immigration laws in nearly 30 years, saying his executive actions were a “common sense” plan consistent with the actions of previous presidents of both parties.
Immigrants living illegally in the United States would be saved from deportation by receiving work permits, but millions more would remain in limbo.
Republicans, who take full control of Congress in January after capturing the Senate from Democrats, warned that Mr Obama would face serious consequences for what they described as an unconstitutional power grab.
“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: pass a bill,” the president said.
House of Representatives speaker John Boehner, who has refused to let Republican members vote on broad immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year, said Mr Obama’s decision to go it alone “cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left”.
Republicans were united in opposing Mr Obama’s move but divided on how to respond.
Politicians have raised options including lawsuits, a government shutdown and even impeachment. But party leaders are seeking to avoid a shutdown, saying such moves could backfire and anger voters ahead of the next presidential election in two years.
Republicans are in a bind over immigration: the US electorate is rapidly becoming more diverse, especially more Hispanic. Republican leaders have said the party risks its long-term future if it does not act to solve America’s immigration problems. But many in the party’s conservative base oppose any reform.
The White House says the president is exercising his executive authority just as Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior did before him.
Mr Obama, who had been considering potential executive actions since early summer travelled to Las Vegas for an immigration rally as he appeals for support.
As he spoke from the White House, immigration supporters with American flags marched outside carrying signs that read “Gracias, Presidente Obama”.