Like it or not…President Obama used a legal and moral argument Thursday to try to convince the American public that his decision to unilaterally protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation is consistent with the law and necessary to begin repairing a dysfunctional immigration system. In an evening address from the White House, Obama outlined a plan to provide administrative relief and work permits to as many as 3.7 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as an additional 300,000 young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. In doing so, Obama challenged the opponents of his executive action to pass legislation permanently reforming the immigration system and to defend a current deportation policy that in his words “rips families apart.” He cited Scripture and his Republican predecessor to call for a more compassionate view of the immigrant experience in the United States, emphasizing the values of hard work, education and success for their children that he said are held by most of those who enter the country illegally.
Obama portrayed his action as a “common-sense, middle-ground approach” that will allow otherwise law-abiding immigrants to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.” He emphasized the need to act in Washington’s enduring political stalemate, which has not eased despite the recent midterm elections, which will soon bring Republican control to both chambers of Congress. He said a mass deportation of the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants “would be both impossible and contrary to our character.” Rather, the president said, the measures he is enacting would refocus federal border control agents on the highest-priority cases — such as felons, gang members and recent border-crossers — that he called, collectively, “actual threats to our security.” “Felons, not families,” Obama said.
Obama’s decision to act on his own came two years after he pledged, in the wake of his reelection, to pursue comprehensive immigration reform to provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. But he was denied a potential legacy achievement after efforts to pass a comprehensive bill collapsed on Capitol Hill this past summer amid partisan fighting. Instead, the president sought in his 15-minute speech to build public support and head off staunch opposition from congressional Republicans, who have vowed to fight Obama’s use of executive actions to circumvent the legislative branch. Obama plans to hold a rally with supporters at a high school in Las Vegas on Friday. Even before Obama took to the airwaves, GOP leaders were deliberating over how to stop him, Republicans in both chambers debated filing a lawsuit over the president’s use of executive authority, pursuing their own legislation on immigration policy or removing funding for federal immigration agencies.
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said after Obama’s address. “Republicans are left with the serious responsibility of upholding our oath of office. We will not shrink from this duty, because our allegiance lies with the American people. We will listen to them, work with our members, and protect the Constitution.” But White House lawyers expressed confidence that Obama has the legal standing to enact the changes. They cited previous executive actions taken by Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both of whom signed orders protecting smaller groups of illegal immigrants from deportation. White House officials released statistics showing that Bush’s order protected about the same percentage of illegal immigrants that Obama’s action is projected to protect — though far fewer in raw number because there were only 3.5 million undocumented immigrants in the early 1990s.
Asked about a potential GOP lawsuit, a senior administration official said: “Anyone with a filing fee can sue; there’s nothing we can do about that.” But the official added that administration lawyers think Obama’s actions “are absolutely supported by the law.” Addressing the chief criticism of Republicans — that illegal immigrants are being rewarded for violating the law to remain in the country — Obama emphasized that those who qualify for relief will have to pay taxes and that they will not achieve citizenship through the new program. He said many of the undocumented immigrants in the country “are as American as Malia or Sasha,” a reference to his daughters, and he quoted his predecessor, George W. Bush, to make the case that these immigrants “are a part of American life.” “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. “That’s the real amnesty — leaving this broken system the way it is.”
Under Obama’s plan, undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would qualify only if they have lived in the country at least five years — since Jan. 1, 2010. The administration said it will be ready to begin taking applications in the spring, and that those who qualify will be granted three years of deportation relief, meaning they would be protected through the first year of Obama’s successor in 2017. It would be up to the new administration to determine whether to continue the program or eliminate it. The new deportation protections are a year longer than they are under an existing Obama administration program, started in 2012 for younger immigrants, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Officials said that the DACA program also would be revised to provide three years of relief and that they would change the date by which DACA applicants must have arrived in the United States from June 15, 2007, to Jan. 1, 2010, to conform with the program for parents. Many of those who are granted administrative relief will be eligible to get Social Security numbers and work permits, officials said.
Administration officials also said the president’s new policies would create visas for immigrants who can show that they are investing economically in the United States and for workers in some high-tech fields. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, meanwhile, will issue new guidelines for immigration agencies detailing the priorities for removal. The Obama administration has deported nearly 400,000 immigrants each year and has sought to prioritize felons, terrorists and other high-priority targets who pose a threat to national security. But field agents have complained that the guidelines are difficult to understand, and they have been accused by immigrant rights advocates of failing to follow them. Johnson also is scrapping a controversial program called Secure Communities that requires local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants who are arrested until they can be screened by federal immigration agents. Johnson will replace that program with a new one, called the Priority Enforcement Program, in which immigrants who are arrested will still be fingerprinted, but it is up to the local jurisdictions to notify federal agencies if they think that an immigration violation had occurred. “The actions I’m taking are 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,” Obama said.
“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.”
Just two weeks ago, Republicans handed President Obama a humiliating defeat at the polls, winning full control of Congress. But already, party leaders fear that the conservative uproar over the president’s immigration actions will doom any hopes for a stable period of GOP governance. The moves announced Thursday night by Obama — which will protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation — have sparked an immediate and widening rebellion among tea party lawmakers that top Republicans are struggling to contain. Despite expanded powers and some new titles, soon-to-be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) remain sharply limited in their ability to persuade their most conservative members. The duo has been thrust back into the same cycle of intraparty warfare that has largely defined the GOP during the Obama years and that has hurt the party’s brand among the broader electorate.
“It is the first real challenge for Boehner and McConnell together,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a Boehner ally. “They’d like to wipe the slate clean for when they start up next year, with this situation behind us.” In his prime-time speech from the East Room of the White House, Obama blamed Republicans for forcing his hand by refusing to approve immigration reform and told them, “Pass a bill.” He also cast the issue in moral terms, quoting Scripture to bolster his case. But comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to pass a Republican-held Congress, because of partisan hostilities in Washington. Still, GOP leaders badly want to show the country that the party can govern constructively, even if it is not clear whether they can keep their raucous conference united.
McConnell and Boehner, for example, want to approve a long-term spending bill at least through the early part of next year — part of an effort to limit theatrical confrontations with Obama and focus on tax reform and other Republican-friendly issues. But conservatives inside and outside Congress want to use the budget process as a battleground to wage war against Obama and his immigration program. The proposed gambit raises the specter of another government shutdown, akin to the one that damaged Republicans last year. The debate is also a test of whether the party can contain the controversial and sometimes offensive comments that have often hindered attempts to bolster support for Republicans among Hispanics. After tea party firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said on Wednesday that protected immigrants would become “illiterate” voters, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) winced. “Unfortunate, unfair, unnecessary, unwise,” said Graham, who is close to party leaders.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate from the Philadelphia exurbs, said the leadership is asking his colleagues to “not play into the president’s hands.” “The president wants to see an angry and intemperate response, thinking the Republicans will do something that leads to a shutdown,” Dent said. “Don’t take the bait, and don’t have a hysterical reaction. We can be strong, rational and measured.” Republican leaders are considering several moves they say would be forceful responses to the president while also keeping the government funded. Ideas being floated include filing a lawsuit over Obama’s executive authority, pursuing stand-alone legislation on immigration policy and removing funding for immigration agencies. Another option — funding the government until the end of the fiscal year and then rescinding parts of immigration-related funding — is favored by the leadership and championed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). His office has issued a memo urging members to avoid using government funding as the means of dissent and warning that some immigration agencies would not be affected since they operate on user fees.
“We are considering a variety of options,” McConnell said Thursday in a floor speech. He suggested that his preference would be for Republicans to avoid becoming mired in a fiscal clash during the lame-duck session, shortly before the GOP takes control of the Senate in January. Many conservative lawmakers, however, are shrugging off pleas from leadership. Furious with the president, they are planning a series of immediate and hard-line actions that could have sweeping consequences. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Wednesday that Obama’s executive action should be met with a refusal to vote on any more of his nominees, and on Thursday, he compared the action with the ancient Catiline conspiracy, a plot to overthrow the Roman Republic. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), likely the next chairman of the budget committee, has advocated for a series of stopgap spending bills with the intent of pressuring the president to relent. Sessions is the featured speaker at a Heritage Foundation event Friday morning in response to Obama’s moves, a couple of hours after a scheduled Boehner news conference.
And Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — one of the loudest voices on the right — has hinted at bringing up impeachment measures. “We have constitutional authority to do a string of things. [Impeachment] would be the very last option, but I would not rule it out,” King said Thursday on CNN. Amid the chatter over strategy, it is the tone of outraged rank-and-file members that most worries GOP elders. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, they do not want to see Republicans tagged by Democrats as hostile toward Latinos and other minorities. “It only takes a couple” of comments for an unflattering narrative to build about the Republican response, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “That’s the trouble with having some of these new, young punks around here. They ought to listen to us old geezers.” In the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has been a prominent backer of comprehensive immigration reform, has been counseling House Republicans about the need to show empathy for undocumented workersas the party rails against the Obama administration, according to GOP aides familiar with his deliberations.
Yet the firestorms have continued to flare, with some Republicans, encouraged by grass-roots activists and conservative media personalities, eschewing the party’s more incremental line and making contentious statements. Speaking with reporters, Bachmann had said the “social cost” of Obama’s immigration policies would be extensive, with “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” When pressed on why she used the term “illiterate,” Bachmann said, “I’m not using a pejorative term against people who are non-American citizens. I’m only repeating what I heard from Hispanic Americans down at the border.” On Friday, Bachmann and Steve King plan to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet with officials to showcase their opposition to the president and cast themselves as leading Republican voices.
Other Republicans have called for a proactive legislative response beginning early next year, rallying behind a strategy that would take away government funding as the main battleground and turning toward specific policy areas. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential presidential candidate, said Republicans must signal that in spite of their disagreements with the president, they are committed to reform. “This country needs to deal with immigration,” he said in an interview.