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Obama Acts to Pull 5 Million From Immigration "Shadows"

Obama Acts to Pull 5 Million From Immigration "Shadows"

By Alexis Simendinger - November 21, 2014

President Obama on Thursday muscled Washington’s decades-old immigration debate to new terrain, arguing that he wants to achieve legislative solutions during his presidency but will make strides without Congress where he can.

“I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common-sense law,” he said. “But 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.” 

Disregarding objections from Republicans and some Democrats, and amending his own assertions that he would legally be out of bounds to act alone, Obama decided to outline his decisions in a 14-minute address that quoted Scripture, invoked his two daughters by name, and celebrated America as a nation of immigrants.

Analysts instantly began debating whether Obama has soured the prospects for many important causes he embraces by sidestepping Congress, and whether millions of migrants who fear expulsion will become more vulnerable to public backlash as a result.

The Department of Homeland Security will start, probably by spring, to focus federal enforcement and deportation resources on illegal immigrants who are convicted felons or those who recently crossed borders illegally. An estimated 5 million people already in the country will be able to apply for temporary protected status.

The president called the changes “a deal,” while denying that “mass amnesty” or “mass deportations” are at issue.

“We’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes -- you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation,” Obama said. “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is.”

Obama’s advisers said “revised enforcement priorities” are within the president’s legal authority to set. All enforcement agencies by law have “huge latitude to pick and choose who to go after,” one senior administration official explained.

The White House castigated House Republicans for declining since 2012 to vote on immigration legislation -- including a bipartisan and “comprehensive” Senate measure passed in 2013 that would have given undocumented workers in the United States a pathway to citizenship.

Obama’s speech also served as a political warning to the GOP that one way or another conservatives should want to repair the immigration system -- or explain to a growing Hispanic demographic why undocumented immigrants who have lived in this country (many for decades) should be split from their families and expelled.

The confrontation Obama set in motion is designed to extend Democrats’ reach politically, far beyond the actual policy maneuvering room he exercised.

His decisions may alienate independent and older white voters, but Democrats looking ahead to 2016 think a sharp contrast with the GOP on immigration is one crucial way to expand Democrats’ arguments to younger voters and newly mobilized minorities, especially in states with growing Hispanic populations.

The potency of deportation relief helps explain Obama’s Friday rally near Las Vegas, just hours after a speech in Washington.

The president, once denigrated as the “deporter-in-chief” by an influential Latino advocacy group, is traveling to Nevada to assert that he’s fought for immigration changes throughout his career, and is responding to a powerful constituency to whom he promised much.

Nevada’s population is 28 percent Latino, but the number of unauthorized immigrants has declined in recent years, in part because fewer undocumented Mexicans have made their way to the Silver State. In 2012, 60 percent of unauthorized immigrants lived in six states -- California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas -- according to a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.

That data helps explain why two GOP governors eyeing the White House reacted to Obama’s anticipated executive action in different ways earlier this week: Gov. Rick Perry from conservative-dominated Texas said his state might sue Obama over his administrative changes at DHS; Gov. Chris Christie from blue-state New Jersey said with some caution that he would express his views on immigration if he decides to run for president.

But Obama’s administrative actions were in part designed to appeal to governors, many of whom have argued for tough border enforcement and attention; relief from state-based law enforcement burdens imposed by Washington; and the benefits of new tax revenues paid by undocumented immigrants who will be eligible to work on the up-and-up.

“Every governor should want that,” said Luis Miranda, a former Obama White House communications adviser on Hispanic issues. 

Obama’s memoranda to DHS will do nothing to ease a path to permanent legal status for the estimated 11.2 million undocumented migrants in the country.

Building on the deportation-relief model Obama created four months before his re-election, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the president looked for ways to embrace undocumented immigrants whose close relatives are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Administration officials estimate approximately 5 million people could apply for temporary protected status that would require a background check and hefty application fees. Those eligible could legally work in the United States for up to three years. Because Obama’s administrative changes can be erased by the next president, advocates believe many who are eligible will think long and hard before stepping forward.

Lifting some existing DACA restrictions will make 270,000 more people eligible for enforcement discretion under Obama’s waivers. Including undocumented parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents opens the door to another 4 million people, according to the administration.

“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.

Some lawmakers have argued this week that Congress should block Obama by using the budget process, even if it means brinksmanship over continued funding that results in a government shutdown. Others want to challenge him in court. They could also pass legislation to block the president’s enforcement changes and challenge him to veto it if it gets through both chambers.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said another shutdown will not occur, but on Thursday he vowed Congress “will act” in 2015, although he offered no hints as to what his party has in mind.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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