Brushing aside warnings from Republicans, President Obama announced Thursday night that he is granting temporary legal status and work permits to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants, igniting a constitutional furor that amounted to a declaration of war against the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.
In a 15-minute prime-time address from the White House, Mr. Obama said his action is “lawful,” and said it offered a new deal for illegal immigrants who had been in the U.S. for at least five years: Come forward and register, pass a background check, and be granted a stay of deportation and a work permit good for at least three years.
“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
The president also dared his Republican critics in Congress to counter him by passing a comprehensive immigration bill granting full citizenship rights to illegal immigrants, which Mr. Obama said he would sign, thereby wiping away his own executive action.
While the president portrayed his action as necessary to address long-standing immigration problems, gleeful Democrats, who held announcement parties across the nation, also believe Mr. Obama’s action will cement the party’s bond with the rapidly growing population of Hispanic voters and provide liberal candidates with a foundation for permanent success.
As Mr. Obama spoke, immigration activists outside the White House fence waved U.S. flags and held up signs proclaiming, “Gracias, Presidente Obama.”
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GOP lawmakers have sought leverage to try to force the president to back down, or to find legislative ways to halt him in the coming weeks before his program has a chance to take full effect.
A number of House Republicans have said they should use the annual spending process to deny the president funding to carry out his plans.
But on Thursday the House Committee on Appropriations said that’s not a viable solution because the agency that would administer the program — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — is fee-based and doesn’t need Congress’s money to operate.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said that when his party takes control of the Senate next year, it should refuse to hold votes confirming all but the most critical of Mr. Obama’s executive nominations. He challenged Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell to commit to that plan.
In floor remarks Thursday, Mr. McConnell didn’t say what his party will do, but vowed it will do something.
“When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act,” he said.
After Thursday’s speech House Speaker John A. Boehner said the president was abusing the democratic process and had shown he was “more interested in partisan politics than working with the people’s elected representatives.”
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left,” the Ohio Republican said.
Mr. Obama will highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans on immigration Friday at a campaign-style rally at a high school in Las Vegas, where Hispanics are an influential voting bloc.
The president said he reached his decision because Republican lawmakers refuse to pass an immigration bill he favors.
The Democrat-led Senate passed a bill last year that would grant a long-term pathway to citizenship for between 7 million and 8 million illegal immigrants out of an estimated population of 12 million now in the U.S.
But House Republicans have not brought an immigration bill to the floor of their chamber, and instead passed legislation trying to rein in Mr. Obama’s previous nondeportation policies.
The steps Mr. Obama announced Thursday will:
⦁ Create a new deferred deportation program for parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident children if they have been in the country for more than five years. They would not be eligible for Obamacare, but in nearly all states they would be able to get driver’s licenses or in-state tuition at public colleges.
⦁ Expand protection from deportation to more “dreamers,” or people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, and grant more work permits to high-skilled workers.
⦁ Establish a new priority system for deporting illegal immigrants, requiring the Department of Homeland Security to focus on people serving jail time for criminal offenses.
⦁ Add more immigration judges to the border region so illegal immigrants who are deemed low-priority can be released more quickly, and recent border crossers and those with serious criminal records can be deported.
Mr. Obama said his plan will make it tougher for illegal immigrants to cross the border in the future — though he didn’t lay out any specifics, saying instead that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will be announcing new policies.
Mr. Johnson has a trip scheduled to Texas on Friday to speak with department employees.
David Bernstein, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, said Mr. Obama’s actions are “arguably legal but highly improper.”
“The parts of the immigration law that allow him to defer action and grant work permits to those deferred were meant to apply to emergency situations,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Here the president is openly defying Congress, which refused to pass immigration reform, in a nonemergency situation. He’s governing unilaterally outside the normal separation of powers.”
Mr. Obama asserted that his action is similar to “the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century.”
Mr. Obama had resisted this type of executive action for years, and had repeatedly told immigrant rights activists he didn’t have the authority to issue such a broad exemption from deportations.
The White House struggled this week to explain why the president changed his mind, though officials assured reporters that Homeland Security and Justice Department lawyers have approved his moves.
The president said his waiver on deportations would not apply to recent border crossers or to future illegal immigrants.
But he also said it’s not practical to target most illegal immigrants, particularly those without more serious criminal records.
“Let’s be honest: Tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic,” Mr. Obama said. “Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans. After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs.”
Organized labor praised the decision, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calling it “an important step toward rational and humane enforcement of immigration law.”
“By extending relief and work authorization to an estimated 4 million people, the Obama administration will help prevent unscrupulous employers from using unprotected workers to drive down wages and conditions for all workers in our country,” Mr. Trumka said.
The reaction from business was mixed. An official with the Business Roundtable said executive action “does not fix our broken immigration system.”
“America’s needs can be met only through reform of our entire immigration system,” said Greg Brown, chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions and chair of the Business Roundtable Immigration Committee. “Business leaders are united in the belief that Congress and the president need to work together now to produce a permanent solution that secures our borders, enforces our laws and helps our economy grow.”
The top lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors expressed concern that the president’s action will spoil any chance for a long-term solution to immigration problems.
“The president’s rush to unilaterally and temporarily expand certain programs jeopardizes a long-term fix that is workable for our economy and national security,” said ABC vice president of government affairs Geoff Burr. “An abrupt, temporary executive action ultimately does more harm than good in fixing our broken immigration system.”