President Barack Obama took a historic step in announcing he would take far-reaching executive actions to change immigration policy. He spoke with the confidence of a man who believed he was doing the right thing. But his actions have set up a major confrontation with Republicans who have accused the president of an abuse of power.
The president's actions, which will go into effect in the new year, will provide relief for up to five million people living illegally in this country. "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," Mr. Obama said. "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."
At the heart of the president's announcement is a new program for undocumented people who have been in the United States for at least five years and are parents of children who are citizens. Most of them would be eligible for a new temporary legal status that would allow them to work in the country for three years. However, they must pass criminal background checks and pay taxes. "I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it's not," the president said in his prime time address from the White House. "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."
The president also said he would "build on our progress at the border" with additional resources to help further stem with the flow of illegal immigrants. He added that deportations of criminals are up 80% over the past six years. "That's why we're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who's working hard to provide for her kids. We'll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day."
The president also responded to many business leaders by announcing relief for some immigrant workers with special skills. "I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed. "
The president did not propose a pathway to citizenship. Instead, in announcing his actions, the president called upon Congress to act on immigration. The Senate passed a bi-partisan immigration bill eighteen months ago, but the Republican controlled House has refused to vote on the measure because of divisions within the GOP House membership. Speaker John Boehner has attempted to cobble together a piecemeal approach to immigration, but his members have refused to act.
It is clear, despite all their outrage, the Republican controlled Congress is not going to pass immigration reform. Pragmatic members of the party know that Latinos are a large and growing segment of the U.S. population that will play an important role in deciding who is elected president in 2016. But a large faction of the party has been opposed to a larger solution, instead focusing their efforts on border security. There are currently more than eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States. About 40% of them entered through airports and overstayed the visas, according to Congressmen Luis Gutiérrez (D-Il), who is elated with the president's actions.
Republican leaders are not so eleated. Speaker John Boehner released a video response, "The president has said before that 'he's not the king' and 'he's not an emperor," but he is sure acting like one." Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who helped write the Senate immigration bill, said, "The president's actions now make all of this harder and are unfair to people in our immigration system who are doing things the right way." Senate Rand Paul (R-Ky) said he would "not sit idly by and let the president bypass Congress and our Constitution." Earlier, soon to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to act, saying, "We're considering a variety of options."
Latinos gathered at the White House, and in cities around the country, to express their support for the president's actions. Millions of them will soon be able to come out of the shadows of our society and live in peace. One of them told the Los Angeles Times, "We're going to leave the darkness -- we're going to stop being scared."
The dilemma for Republicans is that if they undo what the president has done they will alienate millions of Latinos and other immigrants. But that has never stopped them before.