President Obama on Thursday muscled Washington’s decades-old immigration debate to new terrain, arguing that he wants to achieve legislative solutions during his presidency but will make strides without Congress where he can.
“I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common-sense law,” he said. “But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president — the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me.”
Disregarding objections from Republicans and some Democrats, and amending his own assertions that he would legally be out of bounds to act alone, Obama decided to outline his decisions in a 14-minute address that quoted Scripture, invoked his two daughters by name, and celebrated America as a nation of immigrants.
Analysts instantly began debating whether Obama has soured the prospects for many important causes he embraces by sidestepping Congress, and whether millions of migrants who fear expulsion will become more vulnerable to public backlash as a result.
The Department of Homeland Security will start, probably by spring, to focus federal enforcement and deportation resources on illegal immigrants who are convicted felons or those who recently crossed borders illegally. An estimated 5 million people already in the country will be able to apply for temporary protected status.
The president called the changes “a deal,” while denying that “mass amnesty” or “mass deportations” are at issue.
“We’re going to offer the following deal: 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,” Obama said. “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is.”
Obama’s advisers said “revised enforcement priorities” are within the president’s legal authority to set. All enforcement agencies by law have “huge latitude to pick and choose who to go after,” one senior administration official explained.
The White House castigated House Republicans for declining since 2012 to vote on immigration legislation — including a bipartisan and “comprehensive” Senate measure passed in 2013 that would have given undocumented workers in the United States a pathway to citizenship.
Obama’s speech also served as a political warning to the GOP that one way or another conservatives should want to repair the immigration system — or explain to a growing Hispanic demographic why undocumented immigrants who have lived in this country (many for decades) should be split from their families and expelled.
The confrontation Obama set in motion is designed to extend Democrats’ reach politically, far beyond the actual policy maneuvering room he exercised.
His decisions may alienate independent and older white voters, but Democrats looking ahead to 2016 think a sharp contrast with the GOP on immigration is one crucial way to expand Democrats’ arguments to younger voters and newly mobilized minorities, especially in states with growing Hispanic populations.
The potency of deportation relief helps explain Obama’s Friday rally near Las Vegas, just hours after a speech in Washington.
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