Sidestepping Congress, President Obama delivered the largest protection for undocumented immigrants in nearly 30 years. He's fulfilling Democrats' and advocates' countless calls for a "big and bold" executive order, while assuring a bitter confrontation between Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and the executive branch.
"All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America," Obama said from the White House Thursday night. "And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart."
Obama sold his plan by explaining that the issue not only affects undocumented immigrants, but businesses and American taxpayers.
When Obama took office, he pledged to break America's broken immigration system. He managed to get a bipartisan immigration bill passed in the Senate. Still, the legislation stalled in the House.
Obama said Thursday that if the House leaders would simply have put the Senate's bill on the floor, it would have passed.
"I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of commonsense law. But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take," Obama said.
Obama tried to stem the tide of GOP criticism by first pledging to spend more money along the southern border. He attempted to balance his actions by explaining that his action will not allow just anyone to stay in the U.S. He argued that his executive order "prioritizes" the deportation of criminals instead of individuals who broke the law by entering the country illegally.
"I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it's not," Obama said. "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 "amnesty" calls are already coming in. Just after the statement, Sen. Ted Cruz put up a post on Facebook decrying the action.
"Moments ago, President Obama announced he would unilaterally grant amnesty to millions of people who have come to our country illegally," he wrote. "I have one question: Why is President Obama making it easier for immigrants to come to our nation illegally rather than legally?"
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, after the speech said that Obama's action suggests that the U.S. has a "constitutional crisis," and suggested the possibility of censuring the president. He did, however, say he didn't want to go near the "I word."
Obama invoked the words of President George W. Bush, who earned a reputation as a "compassionate conservative" on the immigration issues.
"As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: 'They are a part of American life,' " Obama said.
During the border surge, Republicans blamed Obama, saying his policies encouraged people to cross the border illegally under the false belief they would be allowed to stay. But Obama made it clear that undocumented immigrants applying for the programs must have lived in the country for at least five years.
"It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive—only Congress can do that. All we're saying is we're not going to deport you."
Obama made the case that most Americans supported many of the policies he was enacting with his executive action, but he still tried to temper concerns that unilateral action was too extreme a response to congressional intransigence.
"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," Obama said.
The president also tried to make a moral appeal for immigration reform.
"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?" Obama said.
After the speech, Hillary Clinton, who has largely tried to stay out of big political fights in the run-up to a likely presidential campaign, tweeted out her support.
Thanks to POTUS for taking action on immigration in the face of inaction. Now let’s turn to permanent bipartisan reform. #ImmigrationAction— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 21, 2014
Administrative action is temporary. But it will affect an estimated 4.4 million undocumented immigrants, allaying fears they'll be caught, detained, and deported. Under Obama's plan, millions of undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for work authorization for three years, letting them come out of the shadows and be awarded the same protections from workplace abuses as U.S. citizens.
Parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can apply for three-year deportation deferrals under the executive order if they have lived in U.S. for more than five years. Additionally, the executive order expands eligibility requirements for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, letting those born before 1981 apply to the program if they were brought here by their parents before age 16 and have resided in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010.
A series of enforcement reforms are also in the mix, focusing on deporting felons rather than families. But these changes offer less benefits than deferred action programs. The undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive work authorizations. And their sense of security relies on how the officer involved interprets the case.
"Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws," Obama said. "Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable—especially those who may be dangerous," adding the focus will be on deporting criminals.
Obama's move is sure to incense Republicans who've said for months that such an announcement would significantly reduce their incentive to move forward with comprehensive reform and work to fix the causes of the broken immigration system.
Obama's unilateral action also sets the stage for Republicans to face off against the White House in a funding showdown in upcoming weeks. Congress must pass a funding bill to keep the government open by Dec. 11., and already more than 60 House Republicans have called on House Speaker John Boehner to include a provision in the continuing resolution that would impede Obama from actually carrying out his plan to halt deportations. Appropriators, however, now say it may not be possible to defund the president's action.
While soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised not to lead his Republican conference down a shutdown war path, Boehner has been more reluctant to make that pledge. Boehner said last week that "all of the options are on the table."
After the address, Boehner said unilateral action isn't how American democracy works, saying he's "cemented his legacy of lawlessness."
"Republicans are left with the serious responsibility of upholding our oath of office," Boehner said in a press release. "We will not shrink from this duty, because our allegiance lies with the American people. We will listen to them, work with our members, and protect the Constitution."
Obama on Thursday said their option should be simple. "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."
Republicans in Congress now must carefully weigh their reaction to the news. Shutting down the government over immigration reform might send a strong message to the conservative base and the White House that the party is willing to act as a check to the the executive branch at every turn. However, a shutdown could also seal the Republican Party's fate with Latino voters for decades to come. Democrats already tend to outperform Republicans among Latino voters in most elections; Obama garnered 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012 compared with Republican Mitt Romney's 27 percent.
The Republican National Committee has been making a play to reach out to Hispanic voters and encouraging members within the party to speak more sensitively about issues like deportation and border security. A full-on meltdown over Obama's executive action could only undermine the progress the GOP made in the midterm elections in places like Texas and Colorado.
Short of a shutdown, Republicans can pursue myriad options to display their displeasure. Boehner could once again sue the president, or add the latest immigration action to his lawsuit that has already been filed. That, of course, could languish in the judicial system for years and potentially be thrown out for lack of standing.
Republicans could also pass a short term spending bill this time and then look to defund parts of the president's executive immigration action through the 114th Congress's appropriations process. Again, a partial or full government shutdown could be the result.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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