Obama defers deportations for 4 million illegals
WASHINGTON — President Obama sought to convince the American public Thursday that his plans to unilaterally change immigration laws are in line with the precedent set by previous administrations and did not amount to an amnesty program for illegal immigrants.
In a prime-time address from the White House, Obama argued that a mass deportation of the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants “would be both impossible and contrary to our character.”
Rather, the president said, his decision to defer deportations of 4 million immigrants is aimed at “actual threats to our security,” by allowing border control agents to focus on the highest-priority incursions, such as those by felons, gang members and recent border crossers.
“Felons, not families,” Obama said of who would be in line for deportations. “Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
Under Obama’s plan, the undocumented parents of citizens and legal permanent residents who have lived in the country for at least five years can apply, starting in the spring, for relief from deportations for a period of three years. About 3.7 million immigrants are expected to qualify under the new guidelines.
The president is expanding a 2012 program that has provided administrative relief to nearly 600,000 young people brought to the country illegally as children. Officials said that expansion, which will remove an age cap, could reach 287,000 more people.
The president’s speech, which lasted 15 minutes, was an effort to build public support and head off staunch opposition from congressional Republicans who have vowed to fight Obama’s use of executive actions to circumvent the legislative branch after an effort to pass a comprehensive immigration bill failed on Capitol Hill in 2013.
Even before Obama took to the airwaves, GOP leaders were deliberating over how to stop him. Republicans in both chambers debated filing a lawsuit over the president’s use of executive authority, pursuing their own legislation on immigration policy or removing funding for federal immigration agencies.
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after Obama’s address. “Republicans are left with the serious responsibility of upholding our oath of office. We will not shrink from this duty, because our allegiance lies with the American people. We will listen to them, work with our members, and protect the Constitution.”
White House lawyers expressed confidence that Obama has the legal standing to enact the changes. They cited previous executive actions taken by Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both of whom signed orders protecting smaller groups of illegal immigrants from deportation.
White House officials released statistics showing that Bush’s order protected about the same percentage of illegal immigrants that Obama’s action is projected to protect — though far fewer in raw number because there were only 3.5 million undocumented immigrants in the early 1990s.
Asked about a potential GOP lawsuit, a senior Obama administration official said: “Anyone with a filing fee can sue; there’s nothing we can do about that.” But the official added that administration lawyers believe Obama’s actions “are absolutely supported by the law.”
Obama portrayed his approach as a “common-sense, middle-ground approach” that will allow otherwise law-abiding immigrants to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
Addressing the chief criticism of Republicans — that illegal immigrants are being rewarded for violating the law to remain in the country — Obama declared that his policy is not amnesty. He said many of the undocumented immigrants in the country “are as American as Malia or Sasha,” his daughters.
“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 said. “That’s the real amnesty — leaving this broken system the way it is.”
The plan to offer immigrants who qualify for Obama’s executive action plan three years of relief would mean that the newly processed applicants would be protected from deportations through the first year of Obama’s successor in 2017. That would leave it up to the new administration to determine whether to continue the program or abruptly eliminate it.
The new protections are a year longer than they are under the 2012 program for younger immigrants, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and officials said the DACA program would be revised to provide three years of relief. The officials said the administration would change the date by which DACA applicants must have arrived in the United States from June 15, 2007, to Jan. 1, 2010.
Many of those who are granted administrative relief will be eligible to get Social Security numbers and work permits, officials said.
Administration officials also said the president’s new policies would establish visas for immigrants who can show that they are investing economically in the United States and for workers in some high-tech fields.