President Barack Obama announced broad executive action to offer temporary relief from deportation to millions of undocumented immigrants on Thursday, saying that the separation of families or the oppression of low-wage immigrant workers is "not who we are as Americans."
"If you've been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation," he said in a nationally televised address from the East Room of the White House. "You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law."
Obama noted that the move would not grant undocumented immigrants citizenship or the right to remain in the country permanently. And he said that he will still push for a legislative solution — akin to a bipartisan Senate bill passed last year.
"I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution," he said. "And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary."
Crowds of immigration reform advocates rallied and cheered outside the White House during the address. Republicans, calling the executive order a constitutional overreach that is unfair to legal immigrants, are vowing to fight the executive action.
The most controversial aspect of the president's executive order allows as many as five million undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., including the undocumented parents of children born here. Those parents will be able to request deportation relief and work permits for three years at a time, provided that they register, pass background checks, pay fees, and prove that their legal resident or citizen child was born before the date of the executive order.
"Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?" he said.
The plan also protects more so-called "DREAMers" — young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Previously, individuals were eligible for deferred action if they were born after 1981 and entered the country before 2007. That date is expected to change to January 1, 2010, with no age limit.
Parents of DREAMers are not eligible for the special exemption. And farm workers will not receive specific protection from deportation, which has disappointed immigration activists.
The executive order will also extend the stay of foreign graduates of U.S. colleges with high-tech skills.
The moves will take time to implement. Aides say that the expansion of the program for DREAMers should be in place in three months. The parents of U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children will be able to submit applications for deferred action sometime in the spring of 2015.
Republicans have slammed the move as an overstep of Obama's constitutional authority, citing the president's own past statements of concern about the legality of the kind of sweeping executive action that pro-reform activists have advocated.
Obama hit back at that critique, citing executive actions on immigration by past presidents, including those in the opposite party.
"The actions I'm taking are not only lawful, they're the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century," he said. "And 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."
Republicans also argue, the president's delay of the announcement until after the midterm elections shows that the decision is largely a political one.
"Just as with Obamacare, the action the President is proposing isn't about solutions," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. "It isn't about compassion. It seems to be about what a political party thinks would make for good politics."
House Speaker John Boehner said in a video message: "The president has said before that 'he's not king' and he's 'not an emperor,' but he sure is acting like one."
Peter Alexander of NBC News contributed to this report.