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Obama Goes It Alone, Shielding up to 5 Million Immigrants From Deportation

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After six years of often heated back-and-forth with congressional Republicans over the issue of immigration, President Barack Obama announced he has decided to go it alone by deferring the deportation of up to 5 million of the estimated 12 million people who entered the United States illegally.

In a prime-time speech to the country, Obama said he will offer temporary protection from deportation to the parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and he will also expand protection to more "DREAMERers," or children who entered the country illegally with their parents. Those two groups will also be allowed to legally work in the United States, after passing a background check and paying a fee.

Hitting back against Republican criticisms, Obama defended the legality of his actions, saying every president in the past 50 years has taken similar actions.

"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 said.

Even before Obama delivered his speech, congressional Republicans warned that this action would kill any chance of comprehensive immigration legislation. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn took it a step further, warning of a political and social firestorm.


"The country's going to go nuts, because they're going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it's going to be a very serious situation," Coburn said in an interview with USA Today. "You're going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy. ... You could see violence."

One administration official said Obama's actions are "bold" but "they're in keeping with precedent" and within the president's "existing authority."

After asking Congress not to shut down the government over this, Obama turned to the American public and asked them to remember that this is about a greater debate.

He said:

"It's about who we are as a country, and who we want to be for future generations.

"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?"

That's what this debate is all about. We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration; we need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears.

No Path to Citizenship

"This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently," Obama says. "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 says he will direct law enforcement to focus their deportation efforts on criminals.

"That's why we're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security," Obama said. "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."

Congressional Inaction

Obama says that this problem is best solved through legislation, but the House has refused to act.

"Until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president -- the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me -- that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just," Obama said.

"Tonight, I am announcing those actions."

Touts Immigration Record

President Obama touts his record on securing the U.S./Mexico border:

"When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system. And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders. Today, we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history. And over the past six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half. Although this summer, there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children being apprehended at our border, the number of such children is now actually lower than it's been in nearly two years. Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts."

Update at 4:17 p.m. PT. Obama's Turnaround:

One piece that is certainly worth a read is one published by the New York Times that outlines Obama's turnaround on the issue of executive action.

In many public appearances, Obama said he did not have the legal authority to act unilaterally on the issue of immigration.

"If we start broadening that," Obama said referring to an earlier executive action that deferred the deportation of young immigrants, "then essentially I'll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that's not an option."

The action that Obama will announce today very clearly expands on his earlier directive to suspend the deportation of DREAMERs, children who entered the country illegally with the parents.

Update at 3:51 p.m. PT. A 'Middle Ground':

The White House has released two excerpts of President Obama's prime-time speech. In the first, he says that this approach is not amnesty. Instead, the president will say, leaving the system the way it is amounts to amnesty.

"Mass amnesty would be unfair," Obama will say. "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."

Obama will also challenge Republicans who question the legality and wisdom of his executive actions by asking them to "pass a bill."

Update at 3:17 p.m. PT. The Legal Authority:

In a briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, a senior White House official explained the legal reasoning behind the two big actions.

First, the senior administration official said, the executive branch is given "prosecutorial discretion" by the constitution. That means the Department of Homeland Security can set enforcement priorities and can decide whom to deport.

Second, they say that providing relief to young undocumented immigrants and to the parents of U.S. citizen children is justified on humanitarian grounds.

The official said the action is predicated on a desire not to separate parents from kids who are lawful, and an understanding that's a relationship Congress wants to respect.

The White House official pointed out that every president going back to President Dwight Eisenhower has used this kind of authority and President George H.W. Bush used his to give relief to 1.5 million children, about 40 percent of the undocumented population in the country at the time.

Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican from Idaho, told All Things Considered, he believed this action is illegal.

The Department of Justice has released a memo that details the legal justification.

Update at 3:06 p.m. PT. Acting Like An Emperor:

Preempting Obama's speech, Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, released a video statement criticizing the actions.

He said:

"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. 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 a time when the American people want nothing more than for us to work together."

Update at 3:02 p.m. PT. Relief For Others:

Senior administration officials said the Department of Homeland Security will also put out new guidelines for enforcement.

Immigration officials will prioritize the deportation of criminals and new arrivals, which means that some of the immigrants who don't qualify for relief and have been in the United States for a while may never be deported.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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