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Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama will wait until after November's midterm elections to reform the US immigration system with his executive power, seeking to shield lawmakers crucial to Democratic Party hopes of clinging on to the Senate.
The move, announced by a White House official Saturday and immediately condemned by immigration reform advocates, followed calls by vulnerable Democrats battling for reelection in conservative states for him to avoid action that could energize Republican voters.
The official said, however, that Obama would wield his presidential power before the end of the year to reshape a system that a gridlocked Congress has failed to fix.
That means the issue will explode in the early exchanges of the 2016 presidential race, and could force Republican candidates to take positions harmful to their standing with the crucial bloc of Hispanic voters that will be key in deciding who succeeds Obama.
But the president will have to win back the support of immigration advocates who were deeply dismayed by Saturday's announcement, accusing him of a "breathtaking" move that will sacrifice immigrant families for political gain.
Obama's determination to use executive powers to tackle the issue of illegal immigration -- and the fates of some of the 11 million undocumented in the country -- has already ignited a firestorm, and Republicans argue that his effort would exceed the authority of his office.
"The reality the president has had to weigh is that we're in the midst of the political season," the official said, after Obama considered his decision on a flight back across the Atlantic from a NATO summit on Friday.
"Because of the Republicans' extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections," the official added.
"Because he wants to do this in a way that's sustainable, the president will take action on immigration before the end of the year."
- Crucial elections -
Obama's initiative could involve halting deportation proceedings against some illegal immigrants and changing the system of issuing legal immigration documents to foreigners, known as Green Cards.
He may also choose to expand a program that offers temporary visas to illegal immigrants who entered the country before they were 16 -- and possibly include their parents.
A bipartisan immigration reform bill has passed the Senate but it foundered in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where conservatives brand attempts to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows an amnesty.
Republicans also accuse the president of failing to enforce existing border security laws, in a political row that has been exacerbated by the flow of thousands of unaccompanied children across the southern US frontier in recent months.
Senate Democrats fighting for survival in states including North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Alaska had made public calls for Obama not to use executive powers to reshape immigration laws.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the 100-member Senate in the November 4 elections to grab the chamber -- a scenario that would condemn Obama to a miserable final two years in office.
- 'Raw politics' -
Republican leaders immediately sought to keep the issue of Obama's pending executive action alive in elections in which all of the House and a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs.
"What's so cynical about today's immigration announcement is that the president isn't saying he'll follow the law -— he's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections," said Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell.
House Speaker John Boehner said Obama's motives smacked of "raw politics."
Reform advocates were furious because the president had previously promised to act before the end of the summer.
"We are bitterly disappointed in the president and we are bitterly disappointed in the Senate Democrats," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice.
"We advocates didn't make the reform promise, we just made the mistake of believing it."
Deepak Bhargava, of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), accused Obama of a "breathtakingly harsh and short-sighted political miscalculation."
"This delay will have tragic consequences for the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who will be ripped from one another's arms in the coming weeks and months," he said.
Erika Andiola of the DREAM Action Coalition charged that Obama had solidified his "Deporter-in-Chief" legacy