The day has finally come.
Millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States will be spared deportation for three years under an executive action President Obama announced Thursday in a prime-time address. With the stroke of a pen Friday in Las Vegas, Obama will enact the most sweeping changes to U.S. immigration laws in three decades.
“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes – you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” Obama said Thursday in the East Room of the White House.Addressing congressional inaction on reform, the president added, “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.”
Eligible parents of children who are legal permanent residents could also apply for work authorization and, if approved, receive a Social Security number and pay taxes.
A couple groups of people will not be explicitly protected by the executive action, including parents of so-called DREAMers — undocumented kids who were brought to the U.S. at a young age — and agricultural workers. But as many as 30% of parents of DREAMers could be eligible, since a family might have a child who is a legal permanent U.S. resident. Similarly, an agricultural worker who has a child who is a legal resident could be shielded from deportation.
Obama’s action will not provide legal status for undocumented immigrants, but rather a three-year delay for deportation proceedings. Those protected from imminent deportation under the president’s order will also not be eligible for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act nor Social Security benefits.
Despite low temperatures, a crowd of supporters gathered Thursday evening outside the White House, waving American flags and poster boards. “Work, live, dream in U.S.A. Immigration reform now,” one sign read. The Latin Grammys, broadcast on Univision, were paused so that viewers, musicians and members of the audience could watch the president’s speech live.
Some immigration advocates have labeled Obama “deporter-in-chief” over his administration’s deportation of about 2 million immigrants. The president rejected the label back in March at a town hall with Latinos, saying he was actually the “champion-in-chief” of immigration reform.
“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,” Obama said Thursday.
The president told the story of a young immigrant named Astrid Silva, 26, who came to the U.S. as a 4-year-old with only “a cross, her doll, and the frilly dress she had on.” Silva, who was watching the speech in Las Vegas, said she did not know ahead of time that the president would share her story. She broke down in tears after hearing Obama talk about her journey.
“My dad has an order of deportation, and so with this I think that our family is going to be able to know that these won’t be our last holidays together,” Silva told msnbc after the speech. “I know so many families that didn’t benefit and that we need to keep fighting until congress does something.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will issue a memo outlining the administration’s priorities for deportation cases, a senior administration official said ahead of Obama’s address.
The first priority for deportment would be immigrants who pose a threat to national or border security, immigrants who are violent felons, immigrants who are gang members or terrorists, or immigrants who are caught at the border. The second priority would be immigrants who have been convicted of three or more significant misdemeanors or immigrants who were recently arrested in the U.S. And the third priority would be immigrants with other violations.
“Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable – especially those who may be dangerous,” Obama said. “That’s why, over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80%. And 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.”
Obama acknowledged that his plan would stir both “passion and controversy,” but he sought to move beyond partisanship by emphasizing that Republican and Democratic presidents before him have signed immigration reforms. In an attempt to reach across skeptical Americans, he even added: As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: “They are a part of American life”
Republicans in Congress – which has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, despite the Senate approving a bill more than a year ago – were apoplectic over Obama’s executive action before the president even presented his plan. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is set to take the reins as majority leader in the new GOP-controlled Congress, said Thursday that Obama “imposing his will unilaterally may seem tempting. It may serve him politically in the short term. But he knows that it will make an already-broken system even more broken, and he knows that this is not how democracy is supposed to work. Because he told us so himself.”
And some 59 House Republicans, led by Rep. Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, have signed on to a letter calling on House leaders to “prohibit the use of funds by the administration for the implementation of current or future executive actions that would create additional work permits and green cards outside of the scope prescribed by Congress.” Congress needs to extend funding by Dec. 11 to keep the federal government running and Senate Democrats would almost certainly block any bill that included such language, creating a crisis before newly elected Republican members are even sworn in.
Conservative activists and commentators have been egging on lawmakers for months to take an uncompromising stance on the issue. Assuming the 59 Republican signatories hold together, they already have more than enough votes to prevent House Speaker John Boehner from passing a bill with Republican support alone. If that’s the case, Boehner will either have to accede to their demands and force a standoff, convince some to change their mind or turn to Democrats to help pass a final bill. One possible move Boehner is considering is suing the president over the immigration order.
Republicans are trying to thread the needle with the fastest growing population in the U.S. by claiming they oppose the president’s “unilateral” action. But a GOP failure to support any kind of sweeping immigration reform could significantly hurt the party’s electoral prospects.
Obama is set to travel Friday to Las Vegas to promote his immigration plan. He will appear at a high school where, two years ago, he made a pitch for immigration reform. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too,” Obama said.
Amanda Sakuma and Benjy Sarlin contributed to this report.