President Barack Obama set the stage Thursday for a political battle so fraught that it might define the final two years of his presidency, and no doubt spill over to the 2016 presidential election, by unveiling controversial executive actions that will save up to five million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
In a nationally televised speech, the president did exactly what he warned he would do months ago if Congress decided not to act on immigration.
Obama prefaced his remarks by saying “even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws.”
Obama, who Republicans have likened to an emperor for his decision to sidestep Congress on this issue, sought to dispel the notion that he was providing amnesty to millions who entered illegally. Amnesty, he said, is the status quo—allowing undocumented immigrants to live in this country without paying taxes, thereby not “playing by the rules.”
“That’s the real amnesty—leaving this broken system the way it is,” he said.
The president’s actions will impact at least four million undocumented immigrants who have been living in America for more than five years, have children who are American citizens or legal residents, pass a criminal background check, and pay taxes. Another million will be saved through other programs. The plan would also make it easier for tech-savvy immigrants, college graduates and entrepreneurs to remain in the US to work. None of Obama’s actions would provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
“You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” Obama said. “That’s what this deal is.”
Obama argued that he’s not the first president to use executive action on immigration, and even quoted his predecessor George W. Bush, who speaking of immigrants, said: “They are part of American life.”
Still, the president opened himself up to a wave of swift attacks.
Leading the charge was House Speak John Boehner (R-OH) who chided the president for acting unilaterally and said Americans prefer leaders who work together to solve issues.
“They don’t support unilateral action from a president who is more interested in partisan politics than working with the people’s elected representatives,” Boehner said in a statement. “That is not how American democracy works.”
Some in the GOP have already floated the idea of impeachment and suing the president. One Congressman even suggested Obama could be jailed.
Obama, less than three weeks removed from his party’s devastating mid-term election, which was largely seen as a rebuke of his policies, appeared defiant, and undeterred by attacks from his Republican colleagues.
“Most Americans support the types of reforms I’ve talked about tonight,” Obama said. “But I understand the disagreements held by many of you at home.”
Wasting little time, Obama will travel to Las Vegas Friday for a campaign-like appearance to bolster support for his executive actions.