U.S. President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy
U.S. President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Reuters

Many cynical commentators may regard Obama's new immigration plan as just a pragmatic and rather politically-savvy step that follows the footsteps of his Republican predecessors. All things considered, it was GOP icon Ronald Reagan that signed the so-called amnesty bill granting legal status to three million unauthorised migrants and the following year expanded it to about 100,000 more with an executive order.

But Obama's executive order, which will effectively shield certain categories of unauthorised migrants from deportation, granting them quasi-legal status, is nonetheless groundbreaking for its breadth and depth.

Political and logistic reasons sit behind Obama's action, which not only aims at providing legal protection for millions of immigrants from the electoral base - the fastest-growing Latino minority - but also at bypassing Congress to set his own agenda.

Echoing Reagan's 1981 landmark speech of America as a "nation of immigrants", Obama detailed a daring action that will touch five million people and allow many to work legally, defying next year's Republican-held Congress to reverse it and risk losing the votes of millions.

"The actions I'm taking are not only lawful, they're the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century," Obama said. "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."

It was a bold move backed by solid legal underpinnings, which sought to surpass years of frustration with congressional gridlock. When forced into a box, the US president has often demonstrated the ability to "go big" and checkmate his opponents with an L-shaped knight move.

In this particular case, Obama as chief executive used the notion of "prosecutorial discretion" which allows him to decide when he will or will not prosecute criminal infractions.

Jose Patino, a DREAMer, becomes emotional while watching U.S. President Barack Obama's national address in Phoenix
Jose Patino, a DREAMer, becomes emotional while watching US President Barack Obama's national address in Phoenix Reuters

An immigration bill passed the Senate, held then by the Democrats, in June 2013 - but it is still stalling in the House of Representatives thanks to GOP veto. Congress does not have the resources to deport all of 11 million undocumented immigrants, so Obama's action was deemed necessary by an array of legal experts for the progress of American people.

His move, backed by 10 of America's top legal and constitutional experts, who in a letter called the policy "lawful" and perfectly within the president's power, angered Republican leaders who accused Obama of "imperial overreach".

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama summed up his party's wave of criticism nicknaming Obama "emperor of the United States". Self-absorbed, polarising as he may be, the US president showed admirable leading skills in pursuing the plan.

My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.
- US President Barack Obama

Undocumented parents of US citizens or of legal permanent residents who have been in the US for at least five years will be eligible to the immigration plan, given that they pass a background check and pay taxes.

The plan is considered an expansion of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that was signed into executive order after a massive youth campaign in 2012. DACA allows young illegal migrants - called "Dreamers" - who have arrived in the US as children to get temporary protection and work permits.

The president made it clear that the immigration plan is not a pathway to citizenship as only Congress has power to grant them legal status. After the announcement, Hillary Clinton expressed her total support. "I support the president's decision to begin fixing our broken immigration system and focus finite resources on deporting felons rather than families," she said in a written statement.

After the expected defeat at midterm elections, Obama lined up opponents and supporters around an immigration policy that blends common sense and high ideals.

Contemptuous Republicans who threaten to shut down the government over immigration know that this strategy could backfire and nullify their efforts, after sweeping the Congress. Your move, GOP.