By Leon Thompson and Miriam Raftery
President Barack Obama last night announced immigration reforms, just as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before him took unilateral actions to expand protections for immigrants after Congress failed to act.
President Obama 's plan will offer temporary relief from deportation to the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for more than five years, work and pay taxes. He will also extend a program that already allows undocumented migrants brought here as children to stay in the country. The reforms are temporary, however, and could be undone by a future President and Congress.
Besides offering protections for a limited number of immigrants already in the U.S., the President also announced plans to strengthen enforcement at the border and prioritize enforcement resources to focus on deporting criminals who have convicted felonies, not families or working parents of U.S. citizens.
In his prime-time address to the nation the President said, “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?”
Reforming immigration was always on Obama's mind from the moment he took office. A president who believes he was elected twice to engineer change determined not to give up when Congress obstructed what many view as a mandate from voters who swept Obama into office.
“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?” the President asked.
The United States Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June 2013. It was up to John Boehner and the House of Representatives to put a new law on Obama's desk to sign. Throughout this time Obama felt heat from immigration activists, so much so that he made statements suggesting he couldn’t fix immigration on his own.
Those comments -- intended to give the House space to do its work -- have instead come back to haunt him and are ammunition for Republicans who say Obama knows he is breaking the law. But the White House says its legal counsel has assured that the President’s actions are legal and in fact, the President stopped short of broader actions sought by immigration reform advocates such as outright amnesty.
The President elaborated on his plan: “So 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. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
For years, Republican leadership said immigration reforms would have to wait until the border was secure. But despite billions spent on beefing up border security and a major decrease in illegal immigration, Republicans in control of the Congress have refused to embrace comprehensive immigration reforms.
According to CNN, a senior White House official said Thursday that the administration had concluded there was no point waiting any longer because Boehner would not promise to bring up a new bill in the new Congress.
The President went on to quote the Bible. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too.
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal -- that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”
The President announced he would wield executive power to patch up the system as best he could, temporarily shielding up to five million people from the threat of deportation. The plan also aims to protect workers from corporations that prey on undocumented immigrations and to assure that those who are here and working hard are contributing taxes to boost the economy.
Republicans wasted no time in accusing Obama of abuse of power by acting like a king rather than a president. Those accusations ignore history. The Reagan administration unilaterally acted to prevent deportation of family members of immigrants who had been granted amnesty. The first President Bush, George H.W. Bush, established a “family fairness” action to prevent deportation of family members living with an immigrant going through the legalization process. These actions kept millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
George W. Bush, by contrast, did not take actions to enact immigration reforms, leading to broad support among Latino voters for President Obama, who won his first election by a landslide on the heels of immigration marches that swept the nation.
When immigration reform died in Congress this year, Obama, like Bush, asked his lawyers if he could change the system on his own. The Obama White House legal team concluded that he could.
So, more than 500 days since the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill, Obama unveiled his plan to go it alone.