President Barack Obama is ordering far-reaching changes to the nation’s immigration laws that will allow nearly 5 million people now here illegally to avoid deportation. The administration is also setting new enforcement priorities that could make it easier for many more to stay.
The executive actions, affecting many parents and young people, mark the most sweeping changes to the nation’s fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades. Republicans are expected to quickly mount legal and legislative challenges, setting the stage for a bitterly partisan fight consuming the final two years of Obama’s presidency.
“The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward,” declared Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is soon to become the Senate majority leader. Obama’s actions and the fierce GOP response largely stamp out any prospects for Congress passing comprehensive immigration legislation under the current administration, ensuring that the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president was to make his case for acting alone in an address Thursday night. He planned to sign a pair of presidential memorandums Friday and travel to Las Vegas for an immigration rally. Obama has been weighing potential executive actions since early summer. Administration officials said the measures he was announcing Thursday were aimed at keeping families together and prioritizing the deportation of serious criminals and people who recently crossed the border, not those who have spent years in the United States.
The president’s actions fall well short of the legalization targets that were contained in legislation that passed the Senate last year but still could confer legal status to nearly half of the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. The Senate bill stalled in the Republican-led House, leaving Obama to conclude that his only option for stemming deportations was by flexing his presidential powers.
The main beneficiaries of the president’s actions are immigrants who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or permanent residents. After passing background checks and paying fees, those individuals can now be granted relief from deportation for three years and get work permits. The administration expects about 4.1 million people to qualify under that measure.
Obama is also broadening his 2012 directive that deferred deportation for some young immigrants who entered the country illegally. Obama will expand eligibility to people who arrived in the U.S. as minors before 2010, instead of the current cutoff of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31. The expansion is expected to affect about 300,000 people.
Applications for the new deportation deferrals will begin next spring, according to administration officials who insisted on anonymity in order to preview the president’s decisions ahead of his remarks.
Obama’s actions were broadly cheered by immigration advocates who have grown deeply frustrated with the slow pace of action on Capitol Hill, as well as with White House delays in wielding presidential powers.
“It doesn’t have everything we wanted, but it’s a lot. We’re talking about 5 million people who are going to live without fear of deportation,” said Lorella Praeli, advocacy director for the group United We Dream.
Beyond the broader deferrals, Obama is also ordering the Department of Homeland Security to issue new deportation priorities that focus on pursuing serious criminals, people who pose a national security threat and those who have entered the country illegally within the past year. The new guidelines say that people who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than 10 years are a low priority for deportation.
While officials said there was no way to estimate how many people would be able to stay in the U.S. as a result of the new priorities, they said it would make it far less likely that the millions of people who fall into this legal limbo would ever be deported.
The White House insists Obama has the legal authority to halt deportations for parents and those who came to the U.S. as children, primarily on humanitarian grounds. Officials also cited the precedents set by previous immigration executive actions invoked by Democratic and Republican presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.
GOP lawmakers disagree with Obama’s claims of legal authority, calling his actions an unconstitutional power grab.
“The president seems intent on provoking a constitutional crisis by adopting policies that he previously said were illegal,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Republicans are weighing a range of responses, including filing legal challenges and using must-pass spending legislation this fall to try to stop Obama’s effort. One lawmaker — Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama — has raised the specter of impeachment.
GOP leaders have warned against such talk and are seeking to avoid spending-bill tactics that could lead to a government shutdown. They say such moves could backfire, angering many voters and alienating Hispanics for the next presidential election.
While many Democrat have backed Obama’s decision to circumvent Congress, some in his party have expressed reservations. Among them is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who said the newly elected Congress should first be given an opportunity.
“To put it through now is the wrong thing to do,” Manchin said. “We ought to try in January to see if we can find a pathway to get something accomplished.”