Despite strongly-worded warnings from his Republican colleagues in Congress, President Barack Obama announced his executive order on immigration reform Thursday night — an action plan that, to many immigration rights activists, was long overdue. The president laid out his plan for what he called "accountability, not amnesty," outlining a quick yet calculated fix to an immigration system that has been dysfunctional for decades. Under his new overhaul, the federal government will focus on deporting "felons, not families, criminals, not children," allowing an estimated four to five million undocumented citizens to lawfully stay in the United States. "You can come out of the shadows, and get right with the law," Obama said.
The president opened his speech with an emotional appeal, emphasizing that America has always been "a nation of immigrants," a fact that Americans cherish. Welcoming immigrants has "kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial," Obama said.
But time has come for a new system, the president said, one that keeps families together and allows hard-working undocumented citizens who've lived in the United States for years to have a pathway to residing in America lawfully:
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? 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's three-point action plan — which is similar to the bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in 2013 — will add more resources to border patrol forces, ensuring stronger protections and cracking down on undocumented immigrants who recently crossed U.S. borders. It will also fast-track "high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs" on their way to lawful citizen and, lastly, hold accountable the millions of undocumented citizens already here in America.
Obama elaborated on that third point, which he said "generates the most passion and controversy." The president stressed that undocumented citizens must be held accountable for breaking immigration laws — but that doesn't mean mass deportation. While the federal government will continue to crack down on criminals, gang members and the like, the president offered this "deal" to millions of undocumented citizens:
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.
However, the president was clear that this deal doesn't grant benefits or citizenship — or even place undocumented citizens on the road to citizenship. "Only Congress can do that," Obama said. "All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you."
As for Congress? Well, Obama had some fighting words for the House Republicans. Despite recent warnings from House Speaker John Boehner, who said the president was "playing with matches" and "burning himself," Obama kept his cool. Turning the tables of Boehner, Obama directly attacked House Republicans for ignoring his bipartisan immigration plan last year and stressed his legal right — lawsuits be damn — to announce this executive order:
Now, I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law. 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 also rejected criticisms from his right-wing foes, who believe the president is offering undocumented citizens a sort of "get-out-of-deportation" pass. "Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character," Obama said. "What I'm describing is accountability — a commonsense, middle ground approach."
He did, however, make one plea to House Republicans: "Pass the bill."
Images: Getty Images (3)