President Barack Obama is ordering far-reaching changes to the U.S. immigration system that will protect nearly 5 million people from deportation, testing the limits of his presidential powers and inviting a showdown with newly emboldened Republicans.
In a televised address Thursday night, the president described the most sweeping changes to fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades, saying his executive actions were a “commonsense” plan consistent with what previous presidents of both parties had done. Immigrants living illegally in the United States would be saved from deportation by receiving work permits.
While Obama’s measures are sweeping in scope, they still leave more than half of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally in limbo. The president announced new deportation priorities that would compel law enforcement to focus its efforts on tracking down serious criminals and people who have recently crossed the border, while specifically placing a low priority on those who have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years.
Obama, whose approval ratings have sagged, insisted that his actions did not amount to amnesty.
“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,” he said.
The main beneficiaries of the president’s actions are immigrants who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. After passing background checks and paying fees, those individuals can now be granted relief from deportation for three years and get work permits. The administration expects about 4.1 million people to qualify.
Obama is also broadening his 2012 directive that deferred deportation for some young immigrants who entered the country illegally. Obama will expand eligibility to people who arrived in the U.S. as minors before 2010, instead of the current cutoff of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31. The expansion is expected to affect about 300,000 people.
Obama says that although there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children coming across the border over the summer, overall the number of people trying to cross the border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s.
Obama also touted his efforts to bolster security at the U.S.-Mexico border and pledged to continue shifting resources to those areas and easing backlogs at immigration courts.
Republicans, who take full control of Congress in January after capturing the Senate from Democrats, warned that Obama would face serious consequences for what they described as an unconstitutional power grab.
“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,” Obama said.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who has refused to have his Republican members vote on broad immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year, said Obama’s decision to go it alone “cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”
The White House says the president is exercising his executive authority to tackle immigration reform unilaterally, as Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did before him.
Click on the year slider at the top to see changes over time. Apprehensions measure the number of foreign nationals caught being in the U.S. illegally. Countries with no data, not applicable data, or where ‘data withheld to limit disclosure’ are not included.
Obama, who had been weighing potential executive actions since early summer, planned to sign a pair of presidential memorandums Friday and travel to Las Vegas for an immigration rally as he appeals for support.
As Obama spoke from the White House, immigration supporters with American flags draped over their shoulders marched on the street outside carrying signs that read, “Gracias, Presidente Obama.”
Story compiled with information from the Associated Press.
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