Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) — Thursday night, President Obama announced a sweeping executive action intended to secure the border while providing relief for an estimated 4.1 million undocumented family members of U.S. citizens and about 300,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
“Today, our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it,” the president said from the East Room of the White House. “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? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility and give their kids a better future?
“There are actions I have the legal authority to take as president — the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me,” Obama boldly claimed, “that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”
The action will be finalized Friday with the signing of a presidential memorandum at a rally in Las Vegas. It will fulfill, 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.
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The announcement 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 was also unleashed 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.
“Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable,” Obama said. But, “let’s be honest — tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.
“That’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day,” he said. “After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours.”
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 attending school, have graduated high school or have 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 records, 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, he is claiming.
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 claimed 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.”
Boehner’s comments refered to President Obama’s previous comments that he didn’t have the authority to make the moves he announced Thursday evening.
“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not,” Obama said tonight. “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.”
But 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.”
“I know the politics of this issue are tough,” Obama said during his address. “But let me tell you why I have come to feel so strongly about it. Over the past few years, I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs, without taking a dime from the government, and at risk at any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids.”
“I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers,” the president continued. “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. 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.”
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