WASHINGTON (Reuters/AFP) - United States President Barack Obama unveiled his highly anticipated immigration plan on Thursday, saying lifting the threat of expulsion from five million undocumented migrants would make the system "more fair and just."
Mr Obama announced steps to address the "broken" US immigration system, but urged Republican lawmakers to pass broader reforms to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country.
The plan that Mr Obama outlined will allow undocumented migrants who have been living illegally in the United States for five years and have US-born children to apply for three-year work permits. Thus protected from the threat of deportation, they will be able to come out of the shadows, undergo criminal records checks and pay proper taxes to the US authorities while applying for longer-term residency.
"Today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it," Mr Obama said, announcing rules that will let millions of eligible undocumented people apply for deportation relief. "You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," he said.
And, while he stressed migrants will not get "a free pass to American citizenship" without taking the proper steps, Mr Obama said that "rounding up and deporting millions of people isn't realistic".
"My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too," Mr Obama declared, in a primetime national address from the White House.
"What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal - that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will."
The administration estimates the programme, along with broadening the eligibility of young migrants to seek papers under a different program, will help just under half of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Mr Obama's Republican opponents argue he is exceeding his authority in extending the offer without passing legislation in Congress, and that the plan amounts to an amnesty for migrants who broke the law.
"Well, it's not," Mr Obama 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."
Also, to Republican lawmakers angry about with what he called "common sense" executive immigration actions, he said that they should "pass a Bill".
"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," Mr Obama said in his prepared remarks.
Mr Obama also warned would-be border crossers that his actions, though they protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, would not protect them. "If you plan to enter the US illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up," he said.