Obama to transform immigration policy, spare 5 million from deportation

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
U.S. President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, November 20, 2014. Obama outlined a plan on Thursday to ease the threat of deportation for about 4.7 million undocumented immigrants. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION)

President Barack Obama on Thursday will announce a legacy-defining plan to transform U.S. immigration policy, sparing up to 5 million people from deportation and defying Republicans who charge that he is breaking the law.

White House officials expressed rock-solid confidence that Obama’s sweeping executive actions will survive any political or legal challenges and practically dared GOP lawmakers to attempt to get their way with a government shutdown.

But Obama won’t to take any chances in the court of public opinion. The president, top White House aides, and Cabinet officials will crisscross the country to make the case to affected populations and the broader public, officials told reporters at a briefing in the White House Roosevelt Room hours before the announcement.

The administration will also step up “very, very aggressive” efforts in Central America to make sure that people there don’t respond to the news of more lenient treatment for those who come to the United States illegally by attempting to make the trip themselves. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have reached out to leaders of relevant countries in recent weeks to get their help with that campaign, one official said at the briefing.

Obama’s far-reaching plan rests on three core proposals: Making certain classes of individuals eligible for protection from deportation; raising the bar for what kind of criminal activity triggers deportation; and modestly expanding the number of people qualified to immigrate to the United States legally.

Arguably the most important shift will see parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents be spared deportation if they have been in the United States longer than five years and pass a background check. That population, estimated at about 4 million, will be eligible for work permits. Felons, people convicted of serious misdemeanors and those with suspected ties to extremist groups would not be eligible. Officials emphasized that this was not a pathway to citizenship.

This shift, which the White House calls “deportation protection” and Republicans call “amnesty,” is intended to last for three years but could be reversed by the next president. Republicans complain privately that Obama has essentially locked in the next administration unless they are willing to brave the political blowback that would certainly greet a decision to reverse course and press ahead with millions of deportations.

Obama will also expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He will entirely remove the age cap, which requires beneficiaries to be under 31 years old as of June 15, 2012. Beneficiaries will have to have arrived before they were 16. And he will also expand eligibility by shifting the date by when they have to have arrived in the United States from June 15, 2007, to Jan. 1, 2010. The White House expects that 270,000 people would qualify.

Obama will also press ahead with changes to the way the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforces deportations, aides said.

Currently, an undocumented immigration arrested for a broken taillight would be processed by local police, who would alert ICE. ICE would launch deportation proceedings. Under the new system, ICE would only move to expel individuals who fell into certain categories: if they had been convicted of a serious offense, for example, or had ties to extremist groups, or if they crossed the border after Jan. 1, 2014.

“We’re going to focus on deporting felons, not families,” one official said at the briefing.

Finally, the plan would make it easier for entrepreneurs and workers in so-called “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and math — to come to the United States and to stay longer than they currently can.

Obama considered extending some protections to the parents of so-called Dreamers — brought to the United States as minors — and to agricultural workers, but ultimately decided he lacked the authority to do so. Still, some unknown number of each category is likely to benefit from the other changes, officials said.

Anticipating a Republican counterattack, aides insisted that Obama’s actions were legal. They pointed to executive actions from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to protect some categories of people from deportation. And they said the changes to deportation policy amounted to “pretty routine” prosecutorial discretion.

That argument, in essence, holds that law enforcement agencies never have enough resources and are therefore always making decisions about whom to prosecute.

Asked whether Republicans could stall or roll back Obama’s new initiatives, the aides all but brushed aside the possibility.

They said the GOP would be unlikely to withhold money from the Department of Homeland Security, essentially making all enforcement difficult. They noted that a government shutdown would not halt the issuance of work permits, because the agency is funded by application fees.

Republicans could take the administration to court, they acknowledged. “Anybody with a filing fee can sue. Nothing we can do about that,” one aide said. Obama relied on opinions from the Justice Department and believes he is acting “squarely within the law.” And Republicans may find it difficult to find standing — the ability to convince a court that they have grounds for filing a lawsuit because they are directly affected.

Republicans could use legislative language to try to prohibit agencies from using money to implement Obama’s initiatives, the aides acknowledged. “They could cook up some riders,” one adviser said, using the term for that kind of mechanism.

There are other ways to bring pressure to bear on the administration, the adviser added. But if Congress sends legislation the White House finds unacceptable, “the president would veto” it.