President Obama announced an expansive new set of executive actions in a prime-time address Thursday that the White House says will give legal status and work permits to 5 million immigrants in the United States illegally.
Obama hailed the moves as leading to a “more fair and more just” system in an address that lambasted Congress for not approving legislation and warned Republicans against triggering a government shutdown.
“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,” Obama said.
Under the president’s plan, the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents could apply for work permits and deferred deportation. Obama is also expanding eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which offers protections to immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
The Department of Homeland Security will also narrow its focus to those immigrants with criminal records, gang affiliations or ties to terrorism.
“If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” Obama said. “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 government will also expand the number of high-tech visas that are available, and loosen restrictions so that more would-be entrepreneurs can travel to the United States.
The proposals have garnered passionate responses from Republican critics, who have blasted it as unconstitutional overreach.
But Obama said his actions were “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.”
He invoked former President George W. Bush, who said immigrants living in the country illegally were “a part of American life.”
And he said lawmakers shouldn’t let “a disagreement over a single issue be a deal-breaker on every issue.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in a video released shortly before the president spoke, accused Obama of acting like an “emperor” and said he was spoiling an opportunity for lawmakers to reach across the aisle.
“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration, the president says he's acting on his own. That's just not how our democracy works,” Boehner said.
But the president said that if Boehner had allowed a vote on the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, “it would have passed with support from both parties, and today it would be the law.”
“For a year and a half now, Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote,” he said.
The president cast his action as in keeping with the nation’s traditions of welcoming immigrants.
“We were strangers once, too,” Obama said. “And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship.”
The president and top administration officials will fan out across the country to promote his plan in the coming days, including a speech Friday at a Las Vegas high school where the president called for a legislative solution nearly two years ago.
Looking to humanize his approach, the president said he had met a girl there who was brought to the U.S. illegally when she was four years old, but could not attend her grandmother’s funeral without fear of deportation.
“I’ve seen the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love,” Obama said. “These people — our neighbors, our classmates, our friends — they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America’s success.”
The president faces a tough sell to the American people. While polls show large majorities support giving immigrants the chance to apply for legal status, voters also oppose the president acting unilaterally. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed just 38 percent of Americans approved of Obama acting on his own. A near-majority, 48 percent, opposed action on immigration.
The move could also bait Republicans, emboldened after their victories in the midterm elections earlier this month, into a political fight. While White House officials said it would be difficult for the GOP to launch a legal challenge of Obama’s actions or defund his efforts, many lawmakers have suggested the moves could prompt a showdown.
“Congress will act,” incoming Senate Majority 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.”
Obama said he knew “the politics of this issue are tough” but that Washington needed to rise above the fray.
“We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration; we need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears,” Obama said.
This story was updated at 8:49 p.m.