By Justin Sink - 11/20/14 06:00 PM EST
President Obama will unveil a set of sweeping executive actions that will extend work permits and protection from deportation to roughly 5 million immigrants in a prime-time address Thursday night.
The president will also announce plans to shift enforcement efforts, ordering federal law enforcement officers to narrow their focus to those illegal immigrants with criminal records, gang affiliations or ties to terrorism.
And Obama will expand the total number of high-tech visas that are available, as well as loosen restrictions so that more would-be entrepreneurs can travel legally to the United States to launch companies.
The president and other Cabinet and senior administration officials plan to “fan out” across the country over the coming weeks in order to promote the executive actions, according to one aide.
The biggest change to the immigration system will be a new program that allows the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for work permits and deferred deportation.
An estimated 4 million parents will be eligible for the initiative. They are people who have been in the United States for at least five years and have no felony convictions but are currently in the country illegally.
The program is modeled on a similar initiative — known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — that Obama launched in 2012 for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
The administration is also expanding eligibility for the current deferred action program. Previously, those brought to the United States as children needed to have come to the United States before 2007, and to still be under 31 years of age, to apply for the new status. Now, any qualifying immigrant brought to the United States before 2010 as a child is eligible, opening the program up for at least a quarter-million more people.
Those receiving deferred status will also now be protected for three years — not two, as was originally the case under the program. Administration officials say they expect the program to be fully implemented by spring.
Separately, the Department of Homeland Security will overhaul its handling of immigration enforcement, focusing efforts on “deporting felons, not families,” according to one official.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson will issue a new memorandum ordering immigration officials to focus their efforts on the removal of national security, border security, and public safety threats. The memo will also instruct those officials to classify those illegal immigrants who recently crossed the border as priorities for deportation.
“It makes sense if you’re the Department of Homeland Security to force your greatest attention on the people who are the greatest risk and you really want out of the country,” an official said.
The department will also end its controversial Secure Communities program, which asks local law enforcement to hold illegal immigrants who are arrested beyond when they would normally be released, giving the federal government time to conduct a background check. Now, the government will still be notified, but those arrested will be freed according to a normal schedule — reducing concerns voiced by immigration activists.
The Obama administration is also finalizing new rules that would allow the spouses of H-1B visa recipients to receive visas without being counted against the overall cap for high-tech skilled workers. And the administration will begin developing a new program for foreign entrepreneurs, who currently face tough restrictions immigrating to the United States unless they have a guaranteed income.
The president finalized his decisions to move forward with the set of executive actions this week after consultations with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials.
The moves are certain to draw criticism from Republicans, who have already argued that the president is planning an unprecedented power grab.
“The president is throwing this nation into a crisis and we have an obligation to do our duty, here, and in the Senate,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Wednesday.
Such criticisms are likely to grow in volume and intensity in the coming days.
But White House officials stressed they believe they are on a solid legal footing.
They said the administration had contemplated more aggressive action, including protection for agricultural workers and deferring action for the parents of the children currently enrolled in the program. Ultimately, they say, they were constrained by the law.
“Those who say the president is doing whatever he could possibly do, that’s not accurate,” one official said.
Officials argued that the DACA program provided precedent for using prosecutorial discretion to defer deportations and offer work permits, noting there had not been any successful legal challenges since it was launched in 2012.
They also noted that every president since Eisenhower had used executive action to address deportation, and that President Reagan had used an executive order to defer deportation for the children of parents eligible for protection under legislation passed by Congress during his presidency.
Moreover, an administration official argued, Congress itself had recognized the importance of family unity because U.S. citizens are allowed to petition for visas for their parents, so long as those parents have not themselves violated immigration law.
“Congress has recognized that’s a special relationship deserving of protection,” the official said.
Still, some GOP lawmakers have suggested they ought to hold up presidential nominees unless Obama reverses course, or attach riders to must-pass legislation prohibiting the implementation of Obama’s new programs.
“If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday. “We’re considering a variety of options. But make no mistake. When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.”
The White House brushed aside concerns that announcing the action before the Dec. 11 deadline for a new appropriations bill could scuttle that work.
“The timing was in consultation with Democratic leaders in Congress, and [Obama’s] gut that if Republicans are going to do something, they’re going to do it whether we redact it or not, if they knew it was coming, and so, why wait?” a senior administration official said.
The official acknowledged that Republicans would “spend a lot of creative energy making up ways to try and stop us,” but said that their options were limited because deferred action was a fee-based program that funds itself. In fact, if a government shutdown was forced in a dispute over the action, “much like the irony of the ObamaCare shutdown,” the official said, the deferred action program would continue even despite a shutdown.
Either way, “it’s all an irrelevant point,” the White House insisted, because the president would veto any such effort.
Another administration official said that the White House believed it had the moral high ground, and aides said any notion that they should wait until the new Congress “went out the window” when Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ohio) refused to commit to holding an immigration vote when asked the question during a press conference earlier this month.
“This is a very real thing that is going to affect people's lives,” an official said. “Deferring that even longer so that we had a better talking point in the back and forth with John Boehner and Paul Ryan is not something that makes a lot of sense.”