President Barack Obama issued a sweeping order Thursday night to protect 5 million people from deportation, adding a dramatic chapter to the festering immigration debate and inviting fierce push-back.
The order provides no path to citizenship for any of the 11 million people in the country illegally. But it ensures that political and legal tussles will dominate the next phase of Obama's term. The next president could overturn it. Congress is likely to try, just as soon as Republicans take full control in January. But none of that blunted the outrage as Republicans denounced Obama for imposing amnesty by decree and accused him of scorning them, voters and the Constitution.
"This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently. It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive," Obama said. "Only Congress can do that. All we're saying is we're not going to deport you."
In Congress, Republicans threatened to push back with lawsuits, budget fights and nomination delays.
"The president's brazen action is lawless, unconstitutional and arrogant. Barack Obama was elected our president, not our king," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas.
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and governor-elect, pledged to fight Obama's "dictatorial immigration policy" in court, as well.
The president outlined his plan in a televised address from the East Room of the White House, ending months of delay. He put the onus on Republicans for failing to allow a House vote on a multifaceted bill the Senate passed with bipartisan support nearly 18 months ago.
And he pleaded with Republicans not to let their anger prevent progress on this and unrelated tussles.
"Don't let a disagreement over a single issue be a deal-breaker on every issue. That's not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn't shut down our government again just because we disagree on this," he said. "Americans are tired of gridlock."
The bulk of those protected from deportation and newly eligible for work permits about 4 million who have been in the country at least five years have children who are either U.S. citizens or have legal permanent resident status.
Obama's order also beefs up border security and prioritizes deportation of recent arrivals. Longer-term residents with no serious criminal record would be much less likely to come under scrutiny by immigration agents.
"Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who's working hard to provide for her kids," he said, portraying the approach as a reasonable way to prioritize limited federal resources.
"I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it's not," he said. "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time."
At the same time, he said, it's unrealistic for anyone to expect the federal government to round up all 11 million people in the country illegally. Any policy from him or from Congress, he said requires striking a balance.
"Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I'm describing is accountability," Obama said.
The order could affect about 1.2 million Texas residents who have been in the country illegally more than five years.
About 270,000 more people will be eligible to stay and work under an expansion of Obama's 2012 DACA program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That let young people who arrived before January 2007 stay in the country. Under the new rule, no matter how old a person is now, they can stay if they arrived before turning 16, and before January 2010.
But the president is granting no relief to parents of these so-called dreamers. Doing so, an aide said, would created an open-ended chain that couldn't be justified legally.
A half-million or more people are eligible for protection under other elements of Obama's orders that make it easier to get work permits while awaiting a visa, for instance.
Those seeking protection will have to register, pass a criminal and national security background check, and pay taxes and a fee. Registration probably won't begin until the spring. And some immigrant advocates fear that not everyone eligible will step forward, out of concern the Obama-ordered relief can be revoked.
The president and his aides insist that he is acting well within his legal authority.
But his moves angered Republicans of all stripes.
Some tea party activists have demanded impeachment. Some House conservatives have indicated interest in pursuing that course.
Jenny Beth Martin, a national tea party activist, called Obama's actions "an unprecedented assault on the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. What remains to be seen is if GOP majorities in both houses of Congress have the spine to stand up to him."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn and other GOP leaders emphatically ruled out a government shutdown as retaliation. But they warned that Congress will use its funding powers as leverage.
"I have not seen or even read of a president who seems so detached, so disinterested" in negotiating, said Cornyn, the deputy GOP leader, arguing that without building consensus in Congress, Obama can't hope to see his policies survive beyond his own presidency. "If you try to do things on a 'my way or the highway' basis or purely partisan basis, those are not sustainable."
"We're considering a variety of options. But make no mistake," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said. "When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the Senate should refuse to vote on any of Obama's nominees, other than those engaged in national security. On the Senate floor on Thursday, he likened Obama's actions to a conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic 2,000 years ago.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, mocked Obama for issuing a "royal decree" and asserted that he "is single-handedly creating a constitutional crisis."
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, questioned the urgency.
"There is no evidence that the 11 million people currently living in the United States illegally are at immediate risk for deportation," he said, adding that Obama has had six years to work out a deal with Congress.
Obama and his allies rejected the idea that he's overreaching his authority. The president noted that every predecessor since Republican Dwight Eisenhower had issued executive orders protecting immigrants.
Legalities aside, Cornyn and other critics questioned the wisdom of allowing more people into a workforce when unemployment is at 5.8 percent.
"I have every confidence that if we were able to do this in a thoughtful, deliberative sort of way, we could find a compassionate and satisfactory outcome for the people who made the mistake of entering the country illegally. We don't give the death penalty for speeding tickets," he said.
Immigrant advocates were thrilled at Obama's actions.
Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, lauded Obama for "showing courageous leadership." But like other advocates, she acknowledged that without congressional action, the president's moves could be wiped away by a successor.
"It is up to Congress to have the final say," she said.