President Barack Obama said he’ll defer deportations and open the chance of better jobs for about 5 million undocumented immigrants, ending months of build-up and initiating a showdown with congressional Republicans.
Obama, in a speech from the White House tonight, defended himself against Republican criticism that his use of executive authority to halt deportations for some immigrants based on their family ties to the U.S. amounts to an unfair amnesty for people who broke the law to come to the country.
"The real amnesty," he said, would be "leaving this broken system the way it is."
"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 has endorsed immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year that stalled in the House.
Obama’s actions are bound to upset both immigration advocates who want more and Republican lawmakers who want less. They also will frame part of the debate in the 2016 presidential campaign and may influence the political loyalties of Hispanics, a fast growing ethnic group, for years to come.
Republicans immediately denounced Obama’s action.
"President Obama is going rogue, doubling-down, and driving full speed towards a constitutional crisis," Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who’s chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Obama’s plan will be executed through directives to cabinet agencies that deal with immigration outlined in two presidential memoranda.
The Department of Homeland Security will streamline the visa process for foreign workers and their employers and give high-skilled workers a more "portable" work authorization, according to a White House fact sheet. DHS also will expand options for foreign entrepreneurs who meet criteria for creating jobs, and for graduates of U.S. universities in science and technology fields.
The administration won’t expand the number of H1-B visas for higher-skilled workers important to the technology industry.
The biggest category of people affected, about 4.1 million, are those who’ve been in the country more than five years and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. After passing a background check and paying fees, they would get relief from deportation for three years and be able to obtain work permits.
Obama is expanding a program that allows people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors by moving the cutoff date by which one must have arrived to be eligible to Jan. 1, 2010, from June 15, 2007. These so-called DREAMers have been vocal advocates of Obama allowing more people to stay in the U.S. The administration didn’t place an upper age limit on qualifying, provided the applicants entered the U.S. as children.
The White House estimates about 270,000 people will qualify for that provision.
Obama said the deferred deportations don’t apply to anyone who recently entered the country illegally or those who may do so in the future.
"It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive, only Congress can do that," he said. "All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you."
While the president decided he doesn’t have the legal authority to include their parents in today’s actions, as many as half of the parents might still qualify under other provisions of the policy, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity to describe details before Obama’s address.
Anticipating opposition, especially from House Republicans, Obama coupled the deferred deportations with a promise to deport undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes in the U.S. and to keep more resources devoted to border security.
The Homeland Security Department will focus on apprehensions on the southern border with Mexico and on gang members, potential terrorists and criminals for deportation.
"What I’m describing is accountability, a commonsense, middle ground approach," Obama said. "If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."
The administration is justifying the policy changes on both humanitarian and economic grounds.
"Part of staying competitive in a global economy is making sure that we have an immigration system that doesn’t send away talent, but attracts it," Obama said earlier today at the White House as he awarded medals for science and technology developments. "We want them to initiate new discoveries and start businesses right here in the United States. So that’s what I’ll be talking about a little bit tonight."
While Obama’s actions amount to the most sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration system in a generation, his actions don’t go as far as the legislation that passed the Senate last year.
Republicans are split on how to block Obama’s immigration actions. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell say they don’t want a repeat of the October 2013 shutdown.
Because the immigration programs are funded through fees rather than congressional appropriations, they would keep running if the government shut down as did the Affordable Care Act when the government halted last year, an administration official said. The person spoke on condition of anonymity before the plan was announced.
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican in line to become Budget Committee chairman, said in an e-mailed statement today that "there is no question that Congress has the power to block this expenditure and no doubt that it can be done."
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor group, applauded Obama’s action while warning that business will use the expansion of temporary visas to undermine wages at tech companies. The AFL-CIO will pressure the government to create rules so that "new workers will be hired based on real labor market need and afforded full rights and protections," he said.
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