LAS VEGAS -- President Obama reaffirmed his plan Friday to take executive action to reform the nation's immigration laws but said he will keep working with Congress to reach a legislative solution.
"I will never give up," Obama said at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, less than 24 hours after announcing sweeping changes to U.S. immigration law that will shield as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation for three years. "We’re going to keep working with members of Congress. … until that day comes, there are actions I have the legal authority to take to make our immigration system more fair and more just, and this morning I began to take those actions."
Obama even offered House Speaker John Boehner personal favors if it would lead to a House vote. "I'll wash your car. I'll walk your dog. At least give it a shot," the president said.
Despite howls from many Republicans that Obama’s actions would provide “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants, the president’s plan does not provide legal status nor a pathway to citizenship. The executive orders will shield eligible undocumented immigrants from deportation for three years and allow them to work legally. Those protected, however, would not receive public benefits including subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and Social Security.
Boehner, who has supported some immigration reform measures in the past but has not been able to convince his members to come around on the issue, said Friday that Obama has "chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of bipartisan reforms he claims to support." House Republicans also lashed out on a separate issue by filing a lawsuit against his administration's implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Obama suggested Friday that Republicans had been content with the status quo because it had given them political ammunition to use against the president. and other Democrats. They want to "scare people and whip up votes on Election Day," Obama said. He challenged the House of Representatives to vote on a bipartisan immigration reform bill that cleared the Senate in 2013.
The president first presented his immigration plan Thursday during a prime-time address at the White House. “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 from the East Room of the White House.
Obama's visit to Del Sol High School on Friday was his third in six years. Nearly two years ago, the president used the school as a launching pad for his campaign to press Congress to pass legislation to mend the country's broken immigration system. Not much had changed since the president's last visit. And so Obama returned to the school to rally support for his plan once again.
Hours before the president’s address, members of UNITE HERE’s Culinary Workers Union filed into their headquarters just off the Las Vegas strip. Union leaders say they were the first in the nation to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama for president in 2008, and have remained loyal since. It’s their work in massive voter registration drives, leaders boast, that made a red-state Nevada turn blue for Obama. Today, he’s returned the favor.
Chanting “si se puede” — a Spanish spin on Obama’s iconic campaign slogan "yes we can"— supporters filed onto a bus that would take them just a few miles away to Del Sol High School to see in person the president that they helped elect.
“We know that there are Republicans out there who want immigration reform and who want to vote on it,” said Las Vegas resident Jocelyn Torres. “If they really want to help families and really help our economy, they need to get it done in these next three weeks.”
Aboard Air Force One en route to Del Sol High School, Obama put pen to paper and signed two executive memoranda, creating a commission and a task force on immigration, respectively. The bulk of what Obama announced Thursday, however, does not require a formal order, according to NBC News. The president’s actions would not explicitly protect two groups of people -- parents of so-called DREAMers (undocumented kids who were brought to the U.S. at a young age) and agricultural workers. A portion of those two populations could be protected, though, if a family has a child who is an American citizen.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will issue a memo outlining the administration's priorities for deportation cases.
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.
Obama emphasized Thursday who would be targeted for deportation -- and who wouldn’t. “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. 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.”
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Organizers and activists who have poured years into promoting immigration reform are already plotting their next steps. Advocacy groups have a massive ground game to tackle in the coming months. They will work to educate millions of people on not only who qualifies for the protections, but also what documentation they will need to apply and how to avoid scams artists who pose as immigration attorneys. Meanwhile others continue to hold on hope that legislation would survive Congress and make its way to the president’s desk.
For Martha Menedez, Obama’s actions were a crucial first step for her family. Her little nieces and nephews — too young to understand the everyday dangers their undocumented parents faced — wanted something so many kids across the country yearn for -- a trip to Disneyland.
“That’s the dream for every kid in the world,” Menendez said. But with deportation a constant fear, and with so many chances of being stopped by the police during the long drive to California, she said it was painful for her brother and sister-in-law break to tell the kids they couldn't go. “That’s sad for parents to tell their kids, we can’t take you.”
Emboldened by the president's announcement, Menendez said it's time to make the trip. “I’m really, very happy for these first steps.”