WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama imposed the most sweeping immigration reform in a generation Thursday, easing the threat of deportation for about 4.7 million undocumented immigrants and setting up a clash with Republicans.
In a White House speech, Obama rejected Republican critics who say his decision to bypass Congress and take executive action is tantamount to amnesty for illegal immigrants and urged them to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has blocked.
“Today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it,” Obama said. “It’s been this way for decades. And for decades we haven’t done much about it.”
Republicans pounced quickly, charging Obama had overstepped his constitutional power a year after declaring he did not have the authority to act on his own.
In a video released before Obama’s televised speech, House Speaker John Boehner said: “The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he sure is acting like one.”
With 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Obama’s plan would let some 4.4 million who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents remain in the United States temporarily, without the threat of deportation.
Those undocumented residents could apply legally for jobs and join American society, but not vote or qualify for insurance under the president’s signature health care law. The measure would apply to those who have been in the United States for at least five years.
An additional 270,000 people would be eligible for relief under the expansion of a 2012 move by Obama to stop deporting people brought illegally to the United States as children by their parents.
Obama said in his speech that the real amnesty would be “leaving this broken system the way it is.” Trying to deport all 11 million people living in the country illegally was not realistic, he added.
“What I’m describing is accountability, a common-sense, middle-ground approach,” he said. “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.”
‘PASS A BILL’
Drawing a line of defense against expected Republican challenges, Obama argued his actions were not only lawful but the kinds of steps taken by presidents for the past half century, both Republican and Democratic.
“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,” he said.
With Republicans warning that Obama will poison the well toward future cooperation on other issues, the president told his opponents: “Don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a deal-breaker on every issue.”
“Americans are tired of gridlock,” he said.
Senior administration officials said Obama would shift law enforcement resources from the interior of the country to the U.S. border and that recent border crossers would be sent back. Deportation efforts would focus largely on gang members and violent criminals, instead of families.
Administration officials described Obama’s actions as the biggest shift in immigration policy since 1986 changes by President Ronald Reagan.
Nevada Republicans took care to emphasize that they support immigration reform while blasting Obama for imposing a partial fix on his own through executive action. Democrats took the opportunity to criticize Republicans for inaction over the past year and half in the House of Representatives that they control.
Sen. Dean Heller said he voted for the reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but “what I don’t agree with is the use of the executive order nor do I agree with the administration bypassing Congress.
“In utilizing an executive order, the president is being shortsighted and is merely offering a Band-Aid for a much larger issue,” Heller said. “This is not leadership.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval said Obama “gives false hope to the millions of people across America who will continue to wait for a permanent solution.
“Our immigration system is broken and it is without question that comprehensive reform is necessary,” Sandoval said. “However, any solution to the greater problem must be a legislative solution, not a unilateral decision made by the executive branch.”
Likewise, Rep. Joe Heck said the immigration system “is broken but as I have said all along, immigration reform should be debated and voted on by the elected representatives of the American people.
“It’s disappointing that the president has chosen Las Vegas as his venue to ignore both the American people and the legislative authority of Congress,” Heck said. Obama planned to sign the executive order at a rally today at Del Sol High School east of McCarran International Airport.
Nevada Democrats supporting Obama’s move said they agreed that full reform can only be achieved by Congress and challenged Republicans to move forward on stalled bills in order to do so.
“The president’s executive action is a good first step; however it is only a temporary solution,” said Sen. Harry Reid. “President Obama is doing what he can within his well-established constitutional authority but nothing replaces Congress acting on comprehensive immigration reform.
Republicans “ask for more time but we have given them plenty of time, 511 days to be exact” since the Senate passed its version of immigration reform that has been rejected GOP members in the House.
“House Republican leadership must put politics aside, listen to the American people, and immediately offer a vote on the long-term, comprehensive reform that our country needs,” said Rep. Dina Titus.
“President Obama has no other choice but to proceed rightfully with executive action,” Rep. Steven Horsford said. “Following today’s announcement, maybe Speaker Boehner will finally do his job and schedule a vote on immigration reform in the House so Congress can act on a permanent solution.”
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.