President Barack Obama lifted the immediate threat of deportation and opened the way to better jobs for about 5 million undocumented immigrants, thrusting a long-simmering fight to the forefront as he takes on a Republican-controlled Congress.
After a televised address last night outlining his actions, Obama planned to travel today to Nevada, a state with a fast-growing Hispanic population emblematic of Latinos’ rising political power in presidential battleground states.
Determined to block the president’s actions, congressional Republicans must confront a divide in their ranks over how far to go to stop him, including tensions over whether to risk shutting down the federal government.
Obama’s action on immigration “damages the presidency” and will encourage more people to come to the U.S. illegally, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters today. Obama has “deliberately sabotaged” any chance of enacting the bipartisan revisions he claims to seek, Boehner said.
“The House will in fact act,” Boehner said at the Capitol, while declining to say how Republicans will fight Obama’s plan.
Obama said he had the authority to redirect the nation’s immigration enforcement apparatus to target “actual threats to our security: Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard.”
Obama’s executive actions will defer for three years deportation for people who came to the U.S. as children and for parents of children who are citizens or legal permanent residents. The changes wouldn’t give these people, primarily from Mexico and Central America, an easier path to citizenship.
The Department of Homeland Security will streamline the visa process for foreign workers and their employers and give high-skilled workers a more “portable” work authorization, according to a White House fact sheet. DHS also will expand options for foreign entrepreneurs who meet criteria for creating jobs, and for graduates of U.S. universities in science and technology fields.
The administration won’t expand the number of H1-B visas for higher-skilled workers important to the technology industry.
Anticipating opposition, especially from House Republicans, Obama coupled the deferred deportations with a promise to deport undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of felonies, are members of gangs or pose national security risks. He also said he would devote more resources to border security.
The president’s actions will allow almost half of the nation’s estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants to move out of the shadows of the U.S. workforce. It would increase their leverage to seek wage increases, shift within their workplaces to higher-status jobs with more public contact, and change employers to advance their livelihoods. They’d also be more likely to pay income and Social Security payroll taxes.
Legalization under the 1986 immigration law’s amnesty provisions on average boosted applicants’ wages by 6 percent within a few years, beyond the pay increases received by other workers with similar skills, according to a study by Sherrie Kossoudji of the University of Michigan and Deborah Cobb-Clark of the University of Melbourne.
It also is likely to spur a move out of low-status, low-paying jobs. By 1992, the portion of Mexican men who gained legal status working as farm workers, food-counter workers or landscapers dropped to 10.6 percent from 18 percent when they applied, according to research by Kossoudji and Cobb-Clark.
Republicans in Congress are united in accusing the president of an unconstitutional power grab. They said it will undermine efforts to work together to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and scuttle bipartisan compromises on other policies.
House Republican Whip Stephen Scalise said in a statement that his party would “put a stop to the president’s constitutional overreach” by making “full use of the many tools we have available to us,” without offering specifics.
House and Senate Republican leaders are vowing to avoid a government shutdown that could result if they use a government spending bill to try to deny him the funds to implement his orders.
Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell say they don’t want a repeat of the October 2013 shutdown caused by a Republican bid to defund Obamacare. And an appropriations aide said Congress can’t use spending bills to cut funding of the main immigration agency that would carry out Obama’s directive. Other Republicans disputed that argument.
“There is no question that Congress has the power to block this expenditure and no doubt that it can be done,” Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, in line to become Budget Committee chairman, said in an e-mailed statement. Government funding expires Dec. 11, and lawmakers must make new appropriations or risk a shutdown.
Senate Democrats said Obama is issuing the immigration order because House Republicans have refused to act on legislation since the senators passed a bipartisan plan in 2013.
“We’ve given them enough time,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will become minority leader in January, told reporters.
Two Republican senators who backed the 2013 Senate immigration bill, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, said they were disappointed that House Republicans haven’t voted on an immigration plan. Even so, McCain said Obama should wait and try again with the new House membership next year.
“It divides the country,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, told reporters in Washington before Obama’s speech. “That’s the argument I’m making -- that it’s going to make it harder” to pass immigration legislation.
Another possible 2016 presidential candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, gave her support to Obama’s action. Congress abdicated responsibility by failing to pass a bill, she said in a statement.
Republicans will now use a congressional recess next week to determine whether they can unite around a strategy. Democrats control the Senate until January, and even when Republicans take over, they’ll need Democrats to reach the 60 votes needed to advance most major legislation.
The administration is justifying the policy changes on humanitarian and economic grounds.
“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms?” Obama said in his address. “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?”
Obama is expanding a program that allows people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors by moving the cutoff date by which one must have arrived to be eligible to Jan. 1, 2010, from June 15, 2007. These so-called DREAMers have been vocal advocates of Obama allowing more people to stay in the U.S. The administration didn’t place an upper age limit on qualifying, provided the applicants entered the U.S. as children.
While the president decided he doesn’t have the legal authority to include their parents in the actions, as many as half of the parents might still qualify under other provisions of the policy, according to an administration official familiar who spoke on condition of anonymity before Obama’s address.
The White House estimates about 270,000 people will qualify for this provision and another 4 million will be eligible for a deportation reprieve as authorities focus their attention elsewhere.
Those who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and have been in the country for five years or more also will be eligible for deferred deportation provided they can pass a criminal and national security background check.
A smaller portion of the deportation deferrals will go to people eligible to receive visas to work in science and technology fields and to entrepreneurs who have financial support and plans to create jobs in the U.S.
The enforcement piece out of the Homeland Security Department will focus on apprehensions on the southern border with Mexico and on gang members, potential terrorists and criminals for deportation.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said his government was working with the Obama administration and would help its citizens take advantage of the program. At a news conference, he warned people against trying to seek U.S. residency now, too late to qualify.
“I want to call on all Guatemalans to not let yourselves be fooled by the famous coyotes,” he said, referring to the human smugglers.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor group, applauded Obama’s action while warning that business will use the expansion of temporary visas to undermine wages at tech companies. The AFL-CIO will pressure the government to create rules so that “new workers will be hired based on real labor market need and afforded full rights and protections,” he said.