Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) — President Obama is set to announce a sweeping executive action to “secure the border, hold nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants accountable and ensure that everyone plays by the same rules,” the White House announced in advance of the president’s 8 p.m. address to the nation Thursday night.
“That’s the real amnesty — leaving this broken system the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair,” President Obama will say, according to excerpts of his remarks prepared for delivery. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability — a commonsense, middle ground approach: 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 action will be finalized Friday with the signing of a presidential memorandum at a rally in Las Vegas. It fulfills, at least in part, the promise Obama first made in 2008 as a candidate to lift the threat of deportation from millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.
The move means nearly half the nation’s undocumented immigrants — roughly 5 million people — will be eligible for temporary legal status and work permits.
“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,” the president will say, according to excerpts. “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 announcement is expected to set off celebrations on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and at watch parties organized by immigrant advocacy groups all around the country. It also no doubt will unleash a flurry of protests from critics who have asserted Obama is exceeding his constitutional authority and setting a dangerous new precedent.
The White House said the president’s primary focus, in light of limitations on his executive power, is on keeping families united. The biggest group that will benefit is an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years and who have children that were born here as American citizens.
Obama’s order will also extend legal status to a larger universe of so-called Dreamers, who first came to the U.S. illegally as children and either are now attending school, have graduated high school or served in the military. As many as 270,000 more undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for legal status under the program, which Obama first unveiled in 2012, administration officials said.
All immigrant applicants must have clean criminal record, provide their biometric information, and pay a fee of around $500, officials said. The legal status will only last three years but can be renewed. The president’s executive action does not create a pathway to citizenship or allow access to federal health care benefits.
The application process won’t begin until the spring of 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
In addition to deportation relief, Obama has also directed that immigration enforcement agencies focus on those who have committed felonies and those who have crossed the border within the last year. By forgoing crackdowns on those without criminal records and who have been here longer, the White House claims it will be able to devote more resources to border enforcement and cracking down on those who pose a threat.
“Today is an important step toward rational and humane enforcement of immigration law,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a statement.
Ahead of the president’s address, Republicans were sharply critical of Obama’s move to circumvent Congress, some vowing to sue the administration and others warning it would spoil any attempt at bipartisan compromise over the next two years.
“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own. But that is just not how our democracy works,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a short video statement posted on YouTube. “The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he sure is acting like one. And he’s doing it a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together.”
Even some congressional Democrats questioned Obama’s unilateral action, expressing preference for a more permanent solution through legislation.
“It is clear the immigration system in this country is broken, and only Congress has the ability to change the law to fix it,” said Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana. “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.”
Said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, “I am concerned if the president’s action goes too far, that number one it will set the cause back, that it will inflame our politics, get us into a kind of retribution situation with the opponents of immigration reform, and really change the subject from immigration to the president and whether he should’ve done what he did.”
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