Obama Sets Out to Change 'Broken' Immigration System On His Own
The president announced major action on immigration in an address from the White House Thursday night.
Sidestepping Congress, Obama delivered the largest protection for undocumented immigrants the community has seen in nearly 30 years. He's fulfilling Democrats' and advocates' countless calls for a "big and bold" executive order, while assuring a bitter confrontation between Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and the executive branch.
"All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America," Obama said. "And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart."
Administrative action is temporary. But it will affect an estimated 4.4 million undocumented immigrants, allaying fears they'll be caught, detained and deported. Under Obama's plan, millions of undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for work authorization for three years, letting them come out of the shadows and be awarded the same protections from workplace abuses as U.S. citizens.
Parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can apply for three-year deportation deferrals under the executive order if they have lived in U.S. for more than five years. Additionally, the executive order expands eligibility requirements for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, letting those born before 1981 apply to the program if they were brought here by their parents before age 16 and have resided in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010.
A series of enforcement reforms are also in the mix, focusing on deporting felons rather than families. But these changes offer less benefits than deferred action programs. The undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive work authorizations. And their sense of security relies on how the officer involved interprets the case.
"Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws," Obama said. "Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable – especially those who may be dangerous," adding the focus will be on deporting criminals.
Obama's move is sure to incense Republicans who've said for months that such an announcement would significantly reduce their incentive to move forward with comprehensive reform and work to fix the causes of the broken immigration system.
Preempting his critics, Obama on Thursday night tried to say that he wasn't the one creating a flawed system. "I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty," he said. "Well, it's not. 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's unilateral action also sets the stage for Republicans to face off against the White House in a funding showdown in upcoming weeks. Congress must pass a funding bill to keep the government open by Dec. 11. and already, more than 60 House Republicans have called on House Speaker John Boehner to include a provision in the continuing resolution that would impede Obama from actually carrying out his plan to halt deportations. Appropriators, however, now say it may not be possible to defund the president's action.
While McConnell has promised not to lead his Republican conference down a shutdown war path, House Speaker John Boehner has been more reluctant to make that pledge. Boehner said last week that "all of the options are on the table."
Obama on Thursday said their option should be simple. "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."
Republicans in Congress now must carefully weigh their reaction to the news. Shutting down the government over immigration reform might send a strong message to the conservative base and the White House that the party is willing to act as a check to the the executive branch at every turn. However, a shutdown could also seal the Republican Party's fate with Latino voters for decades to come. Democrats already tend to outperform Republicans among Latino voters in most elections; Obama garnered 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012 compared to Republican Mitt Romney's 27 percent.
The Republican National Committee has been making a play to reach out to Hispanic voters and encouraging members within the party to speak more sensitively about issues like deportation and border security. A full on meltdown over Obama's executive action could only undermine the progress the GOP made in the midterm elections in places like Texas and Colorado.
Short of a shutdown, Republicans can pursue myriad options to display their displeasure. Boehner could once again sue the president, or add the latest immigration action to his lawsuit that has already been filed. That, of course, could languish in the judicial system for years and potentially be thrown out for lack of standing.
Republicans could also pass a short term spending bill this time and then look to defund parts of the president's executive immigration action through the 114th Congress's appropriations process. Again, a partial or full government shutdown could be the result.