WASHINGTON – In a prime-time speech to the nation Thursday evening, President Obama declared that he will unilaterally halt deportations of millions of illegal aliens despite strong objections of many in Congress and widespread opposition from the American public.
"The real amnesty [is] leaving this broken system the way it is," Obama said. "Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I'm describing is accountability – a common-sense, middle-ground approach: 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. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."
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Obama also challenged Congress on the legality of his actions.
"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. And 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."
Obama added, "I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary."
"Most Americans" support his reforms, Obama said, adding, "I know that some worry immigration will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs, or stick it to middle-class families at a time when they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal for over a decade. I hear these concerns. But that’s not what these steps would do. Our history and the facts show that immigrants are a net plus for our economy and our society. And I believe it’s important that all of us have this debate without impugning each other's character."
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This debate is about who America is as a country, he said.
"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility and give their kids a better future?
"Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families and works to keep them together?
"Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us? Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs, businesses and industries right here in America?"
Obama said illegal immigrants "did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America's success."
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He did not call his announcement an executive order. That may be a move to placate critics who call an executive order granting amnesty unconstitutional, but it would still be a unilateral action bypassing Congress.
The Obama administration says it is focusing on "deporting felons, not families." Entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor, but doing it a second time is a felony.
Obama's action will provide what the president calls temporary relief from the threat of deportation and provide authorization to legally work in the United States for three years.
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According to a White House memo:
"Individuals will have the opportunity to request temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for three years at a time if they come forward and register, submit biometric data, pass background checks, pay fees, and show that their child was born before the date of this announcement."
More details of Obama's directive:
- It will protect as many as 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation and grant them work permits.
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- More than four million illegal immigrants who have been in the country for five years will be eligible, including parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
- 300,000 immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16 will be eligible. That is an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, executive order issued by Obama two years ago.
- Amnesty applicants will go through criminal and national security background checks.
- They will be required to pay a fee and taxes (although most low-income earners receive tax credits.)
- "More resources" will be promised to strengthen border security and to deport recently arrived illegal immigrants.
- Immigration court proceedings will be "streamlined."
Criticism of the president's plan was swift and scathing.
Senator-elect Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla.: "The president is trying to illegally legalize illegal individuals. This declaration crosses the line into legal gymnastics."
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas: "Tonight President Obama issued an oral royal decree that will be followed by a written regal decree, as any good monarch would do. This unlawful, blatant executive action would legalize more than 5 million people here illegally. This president is single-handedly creating a constitutional crisis and hurting the citizens he took an oath to protect and defend."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah: "In a desperate attempt to remain relevant, the President has decided to defy the American people, ignore the election results, and usurp the legislative process. This act demonstrates he respects neither election outcomes, nor the rule of law. It will make the humanitarian crisis at the border worse, and could potentially create a constitutional crisis within our republic.Congress must respond to restore the proper checks and balances to our constitutional order, and it must do so quickly and forcefully."
Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer: "It is very clear that he is making an announcement to all those people waiting around the world to get into the U.S. legally that they are chumps. If he felt so strongly about announcing this, why did he wait until after the election? Because he knew had he announced it earlier, and, after all, it's supposed to be so urgent, he would have damaged the Democrat's chances in the election."
Rep Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.: "Attempts to undermine the law via executive fiat, regardless of motivation, are dangerous. The President himself recognized his inability to do what he just did - 22 separate times. This action is not only detrimental to any chance in the new Congress for a sustainable, long-term solution on immigration, but also to the bedrock of our system of government— respect for the rule of law."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: "The truest words in the president's remarks tonight were when he said that many would see this as sticking it to middle class families who've gotten a raw deal over the past several years. He's exactly right. That's what he's doing. Sticking it to middles class families who are struggling and hurt by the Obama policies. They just been hurt again, this is wrong."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.: "President Obama is not above the law and has no right to issue Executive Amnesty. His actions blatantly ignore the Separations of Powers and the principles our country was founded on. The President has said 22 times previously that he does not have the power to legislate on immigration. I will not sit idly by and let the President bypass Congress and our Constitution."
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.: “President Obama’s decision to utterly bypass Congress and grant amnesty to 5 million illegal immigrants—against the will of the American people—is lawless, unconstitutional, and frankly, un-American. The separation of powers was carefully written into our Constitution by our Founders to ensure that no one individual would have the power to override the will of the American people. The President’s unprecedented abuse of executive orders is an affront to the voice of the people."
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas: "Presidential power long ago broke out of its constitutional shackles, but Barack Obama has taken it even further, to dangerous extremes. He has taken the disastrous hubris of Obamacare and applied it to our national security policy."
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa: "We have to shut off the funding that he would use to implement or enforce this unconstitutional executive amnesty edict. I am hopeful that our leadership will come together with the rest of us that have also taken an oath to uphold the constitution; we've got to keep our word and our oath, whether the president keeps his or not. Stay tuned, Congress will act. We must act."
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio: "The American people do not want unilateral amnesty; they want law enforcement and border control. Tonight, President Obama ruined his chances of working with Republicans in a bipartisan manner to address immigration. Instead he acted politically, in his own interests and not those of the American people or the millions of immigrants who are legally trying to become American citizens."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.: “We need immigration reform. But the right way to do it is to first bring illegal immigration under control by securing the borders and enforcing the laws, then modernizing our legal immigration system. After we do these things, we will eventually have to deal with those here illegally in a reasonable but responsible way. 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.”
Sen Orrin Hatch, R-Utah: "[Obama] has demonstrated that his priorities are polarization and partisanship, not working across the aisle to get things done."
Earlier in the day, on the Senate floor, Cruz invoked the oratory of the Roman senator Cicero to issue a searing assessment of the prospect of amnesty, saying: "When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now."
The next question will be: What is the GOP prepared to do to stop amnesty?
Some conservatives see a government shutdown as the only option, but GOP leaders fear the public would blame Republicans.
Congress could send the president a series of short-term spending measures, called continuing resolutions, or CRs, before a Dec. 11 deadline. The CRs could fund everything but the tools Obama would need to implement amnesty, perhaps including such things as the printing of millions of new Social Security cards.
If Obama refused to sign such bills, the government would then be unfunded after Dec. 11 until either the president or Congress changed course.
Some conservatives such as Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Steve King, R-Iowa, are pushing hard to block amnesty with the threat of a shutdown if the president refused to sign such CRs, while other conservative lawmakers want to analyze Obama's proposal before deciding what actions to take.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah told WND he believes Republican leaders might be amenable to using CRs to defund an amnesty order, but he didn't appear to convey an urgency to react to whatever Obama might do.
He implied waiting could work to Republicans' advantage.
"If nothing else, the uncertainty created by all of it might, I suspect, give rise to a very short-term CR, one that would take us around the bend into next year," Lee told WND. "At that point, we could pass something else with Republican votes in the new Republican Senate."
When asked if GOP leaders would back efforts to use CRs to stop amnesty, risking a shutdown, Senator-elect James Lankford, R-Okla., told WND: "I don't know yet. We're about to find out."
"The president, in whatever he proposes, doesn't have full public support. If he had full public support, we would have already passed something, because people would have risen up and said this is what we want. But that's not where people are," said Lankford.
Lawmakers have told WND their phone lines melted with calls from outraged citizens when the Senate pushed an amnesty plan in 2007.
Amnesty is still unpopular. According to an election-day exit poll, 74 percent of voters did not want Obama to issue an executive order granting amnesty. It was opposed by even a majority of Democrats at 51 percent, with 92 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of independents preferring the president work with Congress on immigration rather than acting alone.
Even a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are wary of voter backlash over amnesty.
Lee told WND: "I think a lot of my Democratic colleagues are tired of being asked again and again to protect the president, often at great political expense to themselves and their fellow Democrats.
"I think they saw the results of this election and realize enough is enough."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., told CNN: "I just wish he (Obama) wouldn't do it. I really don't. I just think we ought to work through this process and, with the new elections and the results of the elections, we ought to try in January to see if we can find a pathway to get something accomplished."
And leftist commentator Ed Schultz tweeted, "(Obama) should back off on immigration reform, give the Republicans a deadline and use the (State of the Union address) to call 'em out," Schultz said. “[GOP] won't deliver," adding, "If (Obama) delivers a deadline, he gets the attention of the country and puts the leadership responsibility on the (Republicans.)"
Obama has repeatedly justified his decision to act alone by blaming the House for not passing the Senate's immigration bill, which conservatives saw as too weak on amnesty.
However, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told MSNBC the White House actually intervened to stop an immigration bill in the House when it appeared something acceptable to the majority had been negotiated, because the administration feared the bill would emphasize border security more than amnesty.
"His chief of staff, the president’s chief of staff at the time, decided to call House Democrats and tell them that they needed to stop negotiating with House Republicans because they wanted the only vehicle for immigration reform, they want it to be the Senate bill," said Labrador.
Republicans, as well as many Democrats and constitutional scholars, doubt such a sweeping amnesty order is legal. Prosecutors sometimes employ prosecutorial discretion to decline to take legal actions against individuals on a case-by-case basis. But many legal scholars and lawmakers argue such a sweeping overturning of federal law by executive order would be unconstitutional.
Obama himself has said in the past he did not have the legal or constitutional authority to grant amnesty to millions. At one point he told reporters he was not an "emperor" but a president.
He even argued against amnesty as bad policy in his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," writing: “[T]here's no denying that many blacks share the same anxieties as many whites about the wave of illegal immigration flooding our Southern border — a sense that what's happening now is fundamentally different from what has gone on before.
"The number of immigrants added to the labor force every year is of a magnitude not seen in this country for over a century," wrote the then-future president. "If this huge influx of mostly low-skill workers provides some benefits to the economy as a whole – especially by keeping our workforce young, in contrast to an increasingly geriatric Europe and Japan – it also threatens to depress further the wages of blue-collar Americans and put strains on an already overburdened safety net."
Obama wrote that seeing Mexican flags at immigration rallies caused him to feel a "patriotic resentment."