President Obama to unveil immigration reforms after losing patience with delays in Congress

Measures will protect around five million undocumented people from deportation, but could also cause a new government shutdown

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His patience exhausted with the failure of Congress to pass a package to reform America’s hodgepodge and often cruel immigration laws, President Barack Obama said tonight that he will unveil measures of his own in a broadcast to the nation tomorrow night.

White House officials refused to give details of what Mr Obama will be announcing but indicated that the measures, which he will take under his own authority by executive order, thus bypassing Congress altogether, would protect roughly five million undocumented people from deportation.

There was a swift chorus of fury from Republicans on Capitol who said that by going through with his threat to act alone on immigration he was dooming any chance of cooperation with the new Republican-controlled Congress that will come into being on 1 January on that or any other issue.

Mr Obama will spell out his plans in the televised broadcast and will follow up with a visit to a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Friday to rally the support of minority voters.

While Republican disdain is sure to mount, supporters of immigration reform are not likely to see everything they have been asking for either. In particular, it appears that while Mr Obama’s actions will remove the risk of deportation from about five million undocumented people in the country and offer them work permits it will not afford them federal benefits, particularly insurance benefits for healthcare.

Immigrants and activists demonstrating in New Orleans (AP)

The largest group to feel the effects of the action will be roughly four million illegal residents who have children who were born in the US who have themselves become legal. Other parts of what he will propose will affect about one million more people, officials indicated. They said it would not apply to agricultural workers here illegally who are important in particular to California's economy.

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented people living the US who live in the shadows, permanently unwilling to come forward and participate in society in any way that might alert the authorities to their existence. Often they have family members in their country of origin, mostly Mexico and Central American states, who they can never visit for fear of not being allowed back in.

Many corporations, particularly in the technology sector, have also long complained that the labyrinthine visa rules in this country have starved them of much needed talent from overseas.

“Everybody agrees that our immigration system is broken,” Mr Obama said in the video on Facebook and the White House website. “Unfortunately, Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long. What I’m going to be laying out is things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system work better even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem.”

It is unclear how far the Republicans might go to retaliate but already there is talk of action to block a new budget bill that has to be passed by 11 December to fund the US government. A new government shutdown could be the most damaging fall-out. Republicans could also do everything they can to block confirmations for new nominees for government posts, including Attorney General.

Republican congressman Paul Ryan (AP)

“I think it would do great damage in his relations with Congress,” Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman and former vice presidential candidate, said, calling on Mr Obama to acknowledge the new advantage that will be given to Republicans by voters in this month’s midterm elections.

“If he chooses to do this, we will see this as a move for him to play 2016 politics, to try and help his party versus our party, instead of working and coming to common ground with Republicans in 2015 to get things done, which is what I think the voters told us they want in this very last election.”

While a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have laid out a pathway for illegal immigrants to achieve legal residency in the US, if not actual citizenship, was passed by the US Senate, the House of Representatives, already under Republican control, has refused to take it up. The common case made is that the border with Mexico has to be properly sealed before any relaxation of the rules.

For Mr Obama, however, the immigration issue has become central to his own hopes of leaving office with a more than meagre legacy. He made clear earlier this year that he could no longer wait for the Republicans in the House to move on the issue and was ready to act on his own in so far as he has the power to. He said he would take no steps until after the midterm elections, however.