President Barack Obama on Thursday announced plans to sign an executive order sparing up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, arguing that congressional inaction left him little choice but to use his executive authority on the issue.
In the summer of 2013, Obama noted, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill on a bipartisan 68 to 32 vote, raising advocates' hopes that an overhaul was in sight. But House Speaker John Boehner never brought the measure to a House vote, and Obama took Congress to task for its failure to act in his Thursday evening address. House Republicans, Obama charged, "refused to allow that simple vote."
Until Congress moves on the issue, Obama said, the best path forward is executive action. In his speech, the president laid out a three-point plan. First, the U.S. will beef up border security and continue to focus on capturing unauthorized migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. The president will also establish incentives that will keep highly skilled immigrants in the country -- a top priority for GOP-leaning business groups, Finally -- and most controversially -- Obama said his administration would "deal responsibly" with unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
Emphasizing that the U.S. would continue to deport immigrants deemed security threats, Obama said that he would order agencies to prioritize the most dangerous unauthorized immigrants for deportation. "Felons, not families" and "criminals, not children" would be the focus of U.S. enforcement efforts, the president said. The president referenced the nation's immigrant history, saying, "we were strangers once too."
The president's plan expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for those brought to the U.S. as minors; the program will no longer have an age cap. More crucially -- contingent on passing a background check -- parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents who have themselves been in the U.S. for at least five years will be spared deportation. That protection alone affects an estimated 4 million people.
Obama cautioned that the changes do not apply to any migrants who recently arrived in the U.S. or those who may come in the future.
The president's invocation of executive authority on the issue drew the ire of conservative Republicans, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said executive action would represent a "defiance of the people." The president is poised for a showdown with the GOP over the issue when a unified GOP Congress takes control in January.
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half century,” Obama said in his address. "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."
Progressives cheered the president's announcement.
"Today, parents who have lived here for years and had to constantly worry that they could be torn away from their children will no longer have to look over their shoulders. With House Republicans continuing to block immigration reform legislation in Congress, the president is taking a bold step that is fully within his authority to begin fixing the system," said Neera Tanden,, president of the Center for American Progress and a former Obama administration aide.