WASHINGTON — President Obama announced the most sweeping changes to the United States’ immigration policies in decades Thursday night, lifting the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants and setting up what will inevitably be a heated confrontation with congressional Republicans.
Obama, in a prime time address Thursday night, said he will use his executive authority to give a temporary reprieve up to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, allowing them to come out of the shadows and live and work freely in the country.
"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 of his decision to bypass Congress and flex his executive authority. "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.”
The centerpiece of his plan will extend deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who have a U.S. citizen or legal resident child, for three years at a time. To be eligible, these immigrants must have lived in the United States for at least five years and go through an application process that includes passing a background check and paying taxes.
"I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not," Obama said. "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today — 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. That’s the real amnesty — leaving this broken system the way it is."
The president’s executive actions will also expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Action program, which, beginning in 2012, granted temporary deportation relief to certain young immigrants who had been brought into the United States as children. The program is now being extended to minors who arrived in the U.S. prior to 2010, instead of the prior cutoff of 2007, and eliminates the requirement that beneficiaries be under the age of 31 to qualify.
Additionally, according to materials distributed by the White House, the administration will direct more resources to the border as well as instruct law enforcement officials to lower the deportation priority for immigrants with families in the United States. The president’s plan would end the Secure Communities Program, which transfers people booked for local crimes to federal immigration authorities. A new initiative, called the Priority Enforcement Program, will be rolled out and base decisions about deportation based on the conduct for which immigrants are detained.
"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?" Obama asked in his address. "Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?"
Notably left out of the president’s executive actions are explicit moves to help the parents of children who are enrolled in DACA and child-less immigrants. As such, the news of the president’s executive actions were met with both jubilation and disappointment in the reform community.
“The immigrant community is very pleased because this is a win, and it’s going to impact a lot of people we know, but we’re also disappointed by the people that are left out for sort of arbitrary reasons,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “It is a huge victory and millions of people’s lives will be changed, but we’re going to keep fighting.”
Kamal Essaheb, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, said too it was a bittersweet day for activists who have been working on the issue for years.
“On the whole, this is an important day for immigrants and for the whole country, that 5 million people are being integrated into our society,” he said. “Having said that, it’s not perfect and we’ll have to look at the details to see how imperfect it is. There are going to be people who are left out.”
Democrats and Republicans spent the lead-up to the announcement trading barbs about the legality and wisdom of the executive actions.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argued, as many Democratic allies have, that Obama is within his powers to exercise discretion on immigration, just as numerous other presidents have.
"Does the public know the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order?" she asked at a news conference Thursday morning. “People have to understand how presidents have made change in our country, with Congress catching up.”
Republican Mitch McConnell, who will assume the role of Senate majority leader when the next Congress convenes in January, meanwhile, spoke at length on the Senate floor Thursday morning about what he believed to be blatant overreach on the part of the president.
“If the president truly follows through on this attempt to impose his will unilaterally, he will have issued a rebuke to his own stated view of democracy and he will have contradicted his past statements on this very issue,” McConnell said. “It isn't about compassion. It seems to be about what a political party thinks would make for good politics. It seems to be about what a president thinks would be good for his legacy.”
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who has refused to have his Republican members vote on broad immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year, said Obama's decision to go it alone "cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left."
Sen. Ted Cruz, in an op-ed published in Politico magazine, opted for even more heated rhetoric.
“Undeterred, President Obama appears to be going forward. It is lawless. It is unconstitutional. He is defiant and angry at the American people,” Cruz wrote. “If he acts by executive diktat, President Obama will not be acting as a president, he will be acting as a monarch.”
It’s unclear how exactly how Republicans will respond legislatively.
Some GOP members had called for defunding the executive actions through an appropriations bill, but that’s a task made all the harder by the fact that the primary agency tasked with carrying out the orders is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is largely self-funding. Cruz suggested holding up all executive and judicial nominations “so long as illegal amnesty persists.” At least one member of Congress, Mo Brooks of Alabama, has floated the specter of impeachment.
Immigration groups are also preparing for the possibility that GOP governors retaliate with anti-immigration measures. At least three — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — are weighing lawsuits against the federal government.
“We know there’s going to be various maneuvers, tricks to undo this by its opponents,” Essaheb said. “A lot of work has to be done both to educate the public about the benefits of this — not just the people who benefit but the country as a whole — and to pushback on legislators who will try to undo it.”