Washington is bracing for a possible political earthquake this week, if President Barack Obama makes good on his promise to reform America’s oft-criticized immigration system through executive action. Obama could bypass Congress to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation - a move that would infuriate Republicans preparing to take full control of the legislature.
What is to become of an estimated 12 million people living illegally in the United States, some of whom have U.S.-born children? For years, Congress has debated the issue but failed to pass an immigration reform bill that could be signed into law.
In June, a visibly-frustrated President Obama said his patience had run out.
“I am beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own. If Congress will not do its job, at least we can do ours,” said Obama.
The president renewed the promise while traveling in Asia last week, and said Republicans have only themselves to blame if he acts on his own.
“I am always interested in negotiating a legislative solution to the immigration problem, and that the minute they pass a bill that I can sign that fixes our immigration system, then any executive actions I take are replaced. So they have the ability to fix the system. What they don’t have the ability to do is to expect me to stand by with a broken system in perpetuity," said Obama.
Reaction on Capitol Hill has been swift. Among those strongly opposing unilateral action by the president is Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
“We are going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues own this path. This is the wrong way to govern. This is exactly what the American people said on election day they do not want. And, so all options are on the table,” said Boehner.
That view was echoed by the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, who will become majority leader in January.
"I had maybe naively hoped the president would look at the results of the election and decide to come to the political center and do some business with us. I still hope he does at some point, but the early signs are not good," said McConnell.
Any executive action the president takes could be challenged in court. Additionally, Speaker Boehner is not ruling out a delay in funding the U.S. government, a move that could provoke a shutdown of non-essential federal operations next month.
But some members of the president’s Democratic Party say executive action on immigration reform is better than the status quo, whatever the political costs. Among those who say Obama should act on his own is Congressman Luis Gutierrez.
“What we want the president to do is to act big, act bold, act broadly, and act soon,” said Gutierrez.
Republicans say an executive order on immigration would poison relations between Congress and the White House for Obama’s final two years in office. That is a risk the president appears willing to take.