President Barack Obama moved Thursday to halt deportations for nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants, defying congressional Republicans who called his unilateral action an affront to the constitutional separation of powers.
Obama’s actions reversed his own statements that he did not have the power to make such sweeping changes without Congress. But aides said he had since learned he does have the authority, and that the refusal of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to take up a bipartisan overhaul passed by the Senate left him no choice but to act unilaterally.
“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,” Obama said during a prime-time television address from the White House East Room. “Pass a bill.”
Obama’s actions will suspend the threat of deportation for millions, including about 4.1 million who will be temporarily protected and allowed to apply for work permits provided they are parents, pass a background check and pay fees, and 270,000 who were brought to the country illegally as children.
At the same time, Obama announced plans to enhance security at the border and to shift the focus inside the U.S. away from all undocumented immigrants to criminals.
“What I’m describing is accountability, a commonsense, middle-ground approach,” Obama said. “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you'll be deported.”
His moves were the most sweeping change in immigration policy arguably since Congress and President Ronald Reagan agreed to changes in the 1980s. Since then, there has been a wave of immigration into the U.S., both legal and undocumented, that has changed the culture, divided the country and defied political solution.
Today there are as many as 13 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., including an estimated 925,000 in Florida. Neither party believes it possible to deport them en masse, although many Republicans favor making it harder for them to continue working in the United States, which they argue could pressure them to leave on their own. Other legislative proposals have called for them to return home and reapply for authorized immigration.
Obama’s moves did not settle the political debate — and might have inflamed it.
“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own. That’s just not how our democracy works,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he’s sure acting like one. And he’s doing it at a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together.”
“The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., soon to become the Senate majority leader.
But advocates heralded the move as overdue and just.
“I’ve been fighting for immigrant rights for over 30 years now, and this is the biggest victory our movement for immigration reform has seen in all that time,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for an immigration overhaul.
By acting on his own, Obama’s executive order could create uncertainty for immigrants because it is temporary and subject to the results of the 2016 presidential election. The next president could maintain the program or end it immediately with the same stroke of a pen as Obama.
“We can’t commit a future administration,” acknowledged a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
That sets up the 2016 election as a referendum on Obama’s decision, one in which candidates will be asked to either promise they will continue the policy or end it. If they say they will end it, they will be asked to say whether they would actually start deporting the millions of people and how they would do it. Administration officials expected that a president from either party would be unlikely to take away benefits that already have been granted.
The action was a reversal for Obama, who under pressure from immigration advocates to stem deportations had insisted he couldn’t implement some of the same immigration reforms that he will now sign.
In a Telemundo interview in September 2013, for example, Obama said that if he were to broaden the exception he made in 2012 for the children of undocumented immigrants, “then essentially, I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said earlier this week that Obama had since asked his team for a review of existing immigration law to see “what authority he did have and to ensure that we were sort of leaving no stone unturned.”
Obama and his aides insisted Thursday that Obama was doing what many of his predecessors had done.
“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,” he said.
Republicans accused Obama of exceeding his executive powers and warned that by not waiting until the new Republican-led Congress takes office in January, he is poisoning any chance for compromise.
The Senate passed a sweeping immigration plan in 2013, and Earnest said this week that Obama would prefer for the House to take it up. But administration officials said Boehner already has made it clear he won’t take up the issue.
“Why would we wait on someone who says he’s already made up his mind?” one administration official said.
Infuriated Republicans talked about finding ways to shut off funding to the program, but the officials noted that it runs not on congressional appropriations but on fees.