Opponents hoping the Obama administration would be beaten into quiet submission for the last chapter of his presidency may be disappointed after a sweeping executive action yesterday on immigration. While reminding the country that he has beefed up border security, increased the number of deportations of illegal residents and overseen a decrease in the number of illegal border crossings by more than 50 percent, President Obama extended "deportation protection" for more than 5 million undocumented residents who have children in this country.
Most of these immigrants have been here a long time," Obama said. "They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours. As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: 'They are a part of American life.' "
Critics were quick to jump on the sweeping executive action as overstepping the boundary of presidential authority, proclaiming it an impeachable offense. Obama, however, laid the blame directly on Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who had refused to allow a vote on an immigration-reform bill.
The Democratic-led Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill five months ago, but the Republican-controlled House has blocked a full-vote on the issue, saying they would not support a plan that includes a path to citizenship.
"I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common-sense law," Obama 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—that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just."
Obama's proposal has three core proposals: expanding the amnesty given to undocumented residents who came here as children to parents; limiting what kind of criminal activity triggers deportation; and increasing the number of people allowed to immigrate to the United States legally.
Those that qualify under the new policy would have to register with the government, pass a criminal-background check, and pay their taxes, including fines for late payment. In return, they would be allowed to stay in the country and work legally. The proposal does not include a "path to citizenship" and those that qualify will not receive government benefits or access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
House Speaker John Boehner blasted the president for "playing politics."
"By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left," Boehner said in a statement.
Other conservative lawmakers, such as California representative Kevin McCarthy, vowed to fight the executive action after taking their seat next year. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn warned "this country's going to go nuts" when the public sees the president act outside of his authority. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama called Obama the "Emperor of the United States" — promising to fight the presidential action by any means necessary.
Among the options on the table, Congress could cut off funding to the Department of Homeland Security, block the nomination of presidential nominees, initiate impeachment proceedings or shut down the government. None of the options are desirable. Republicans are eager to prove they can use their new majority in Congress and risk angering the public by shutting down the government.
Obama directly challenged his Republican opponents to "pass a bill." Leaving millions of undocumented residents in the dark was the real amnesty, he said, as they pay no taxes and do not have to "play by the rules."
An estimated 11 million immigrants to the U.S. are here illegally, more than half of whom have lived here for more than a decade and nearly one-third are homeowners.
Obama's plan to increase the number of skilled workers allowed to immigrate to the U.S. legally includes a huge overhaul to modernize the system. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has outlined plans to improve the backlog of green cards and visas for high-skilled workers but no timetable has been given. First task on the list is to improve interdepartmental communication to ensure temporary status doesn't expire before qualified applicants can be approved. College graduates from STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) may also be given additional time on their visas.
Obama makes the case that immigration is good for America, touting a number of positive outcomes to reform including boosting wages for all Americans and raising the gross domestic product by at least 0.4 percent. There are many reasons why Obama would deliberately paint a rosy picture of his immigration policy, but compared with the hyperbolic Republican claims that illegals are "taking our jobs" the president sounds measured and logical. In any case, it is finally some action on a legal problem that is growing bigger day by day. The new policy is far from perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.
The author is a columnist for Beijing Review, living in New York City