WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is ordering far-reaching changes to the U.S. immigration system that will protect nearly 5 million people from deportation, testing the limits of his presidential powers and inviting a showdown with newly emboldened Republicans.
Obama 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 ensuring that the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a televised address Thursday night, Obama described the most sweeping changes to fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades, saying his executive actions were a "commonsense" plan consistent with what previous presidents of both parties had done. Immigrants living illegally in the United States would be saved from deportation by receiving work permits; millions more would remain in limbo.
"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," Obama said.
Republicans, who take full control of Congress in January after capturing the Senate from Democrats, warned that Obama would face serious consequences for what they described as an unconstitutional power grab.
"The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward," declared Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican who is soon to become the Senate majority leader, hours before Obama's speech.
Republicans were united in opposing his move but divided on how to respond. Lawmakers have raised options including lawsuits, a government shutdown and even impeachment. Party leaders are seeking to avoid a government shutdown, say such moves could backfire and anger voters ahead of the next presidential election in two years.
Republicans are in a bind over immigration: the U.S. 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 that includes a path to citizenship for those who enter the country illegally.
The White House says the president is exercising his executive authority to tackle immigration reform unilaterally, as Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did before him.
Obama, whose approval ratings have sagged, planned to sign a pair of presidential memorandums Friday and travel to Las Vegas for an immigration rally as he appeals for support.
Obama had been weighing potential executive actions since early summer. Administration officials said the measures were aimed at keeping families together and prioritizing the deportation of serious criminals and people who recently crossed the border, not those who have spent years in the United States.
The president's broadest decree was expected to apply to about 4.1 million parents who are in America illegally but whose children are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. If the parents have been in the U.S. for at least five years, they could apply for protection from deportation and then for work permits, according to people briefed in advance on the president's actions.
Obama was also expected to broaden a 2012 directive that deferred deportation for some young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. Obama will expand eligibility to people who arrived in the U.S. as minors before 2010, instead of the current cutoff of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31 to be eligible. The expansion is expected to affect about 300,000 people.
Despite the sweeping scope of the president's actions, more than half of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally will be granted no specific protections. However, Obama's orders aim to decrease the likelihood that many of them will be deported by ordering the Department of Homeland Security to focus its enforcement on those who have criminal histories or who recently crossed the border.
Obama also touted his efforts to bolster security at the U.S.-Mexico border and pledged to continue shifting resources to those areas and easing backlogs at immigration courts.
Obama took action after Congress failed to pass more comprehensive legislation. While the Senate passed a bill last year that would have allowed nearly everyone in the U.S. illegally to pursue a pathway to citizenship, the Republican-led House of Representatives never took up the measure.
Now that Obama is acting on his own, some on the right are pushing to use must-pass spending legislation to try to stop Obama's effort. One lawmaker has raised the specter of impeachment.
Some immigrant advocates, meanwhile, worried that even though Obama's actions would make millions eligible for work permits, not all would participate out of fear that Republicans or a new president would reverse the executive orders.