In a prime time address from the White House, President Obama announced a sweeping immigration plan that will affect more than five million undocumented immigrants through executive order.

About four million undocumented immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens will be able to stay in the country on a temporary basis after passing a background check and paying taxes. It will also expand other programs, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy announced in 2012, to offer temporary protections for about one million other undocumented immigrants.

The plan will also refocus enforcement efforts to boost border security and deport criminals and others who threaten national security. And it will also make it easier for workers in high-tech and other skilled industries to come to the U.S.

The president said that a “broken” immigration system and immovable House of Representatives forced executive action on the question of how to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Pointing to what he said were similar actions by his predecessors, Obama said he would refocus efforts on preventing illegal border crossings and “deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”

Obama’s executive actions appeared motivated by a desire to tackle a practical policy problem as much as press for political advantage after his party’s drubbing at the midterm polls. Immigration has long been a political hot potato among both Democrats and Republicans. But despite some areas of bipartisan agreement, actual legislation has seemed a quixotic goal at times.

On Thursday, Obama expressed his frustration with that reality as he outlined his three-pronged approach.

“First, we’ll build our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over,” Obama said.

The president made clear that his priority was not rewarding those who broke immigration laws, but rather deporting those who are most dangerous.

“Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable – especially those who may be dangerous,” Obama said. “That’s why, over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent. And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security.”

Driving the point home, the president added that the priority would be “felons, not families.

“Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

This “prosecutorial discretion” serves as the legal concept at the core of Obama’s immigration plan, but has also drawn sharp criticism from Republicans who see it as the latest executive overreach by Obama.

But the president bluntly addressed those concerns.

“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century,” Obama said. “And 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.”

Obama’s decision comes after six years of partisan gridlock and the increasing impossibility of legislative accomplishments on almost any issue. Democrats and Republicans have blamed each other for inaction, and traded electoral victories in the meantime, but action on immigration has been a particularly glaring omission given the importance of Hispanic voters to both party’s electoral futures.

Still, the decision to go it alone has raised questions about the limits of presidential power. Obama himself has pointedly denied the ability to make significant changes to immigration policy unilaterally.

“Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” he told the Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the U.S., in 2011. “But that’s not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our Constitution is written.”

That was before his successful reelection bid in 2012 that seemed to reignite prospects for bipartisanship. Those hopes quickly unraveled and a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed by more than a two-thirds margin in the Senate died in the House of Representatives. Obama’s newfound urgency on immigration seems tied to that history and a wariness of trusting the incoming GOP majority to pass a bill.

“I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution,” he said. “And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.”

In a statement released Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) decried Obama’s immigration plan, saying that the president was “more interested in partisan politics than working with the people’s elected representatives.”

“By ignoring the will of the American people,” Boehner said,” President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left. His ‘my way or the highway’ approach makes it harder to build the trust with the American people that is necessary to get things done on behalf of the country.”

But Republicans are not the only ones uncomfortable with the president’s decision to act alone.

“I am as frustrated as anyone that Congress is not doing its job, but the president shouldn’t make such significant policy changes on his own,” Senate Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said in a statement.

But Hillary Clinton, a likely contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and others tweeted their support.

The White House is now calling for House action on the Senate-passed bill, which it says would add 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents, a crackdown on companies who hire illegal immigrants, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Obama also countered the claim that his actions would amount to “amnesty.”

“Amnesty is the immigration system we have today,” he said. “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.”

Instead, Obama’s immigration plan is centered on “accountability.”