By Julie Pace
WASHINGTON — Spurning furious Republicans, President Barack Obama unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration Thursday night to spare nearly 5 million people in the U.S. illegally from deportation and refocus enforcement efforts on “felons, not families.”
The moves, affecting mostly parents and young people, marked the most sweeping changes to the nation’s fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades and set off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers.
In a televised address to the nation, Obama defended the legality of his actions and challenged GOP lawmakers to focus their energy not on blocking his measures but on approving long-stalled legislation to take their place.
“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” Obama said, flexing his presidential powers just two weeks after his political standing was challenged in the midterm elections.
As Obama spoke from the White House, immigration supporters with American flags draped over their shoulders marched on Pennsylvania Avenue outside carrying signs that read, “Gracias, Presidente Obama.”
The address marked the first step in the White House effort to promote the executive actions to the public. Today, Obama will speak at a campaign-style rally in Las Vegas.
Despite Obama’s challenge to Republicans to pass a broader immigration bill, his actions and the angry GOP response could largely stamp out those prospects for the remainder of his presidency, ensuring that the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 elections.
Republicans, emboldened by their sweeping victories in the midterms, are weighing responses to the president’s actions that include lawsuits, a government shutdown, and in rare instances, even impeachment.
“The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is soon to become the Senate majority leader, said before Obama’s address.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has refused to have his members vote on broad immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year, said Obama’s decision to go it alone “cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”
While Obama’s measures are sweeping in scope, they still leave more than half of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally in limbo.
The president announced new deportation priorities that would compel law enforcement to focus its efforts on tracking down serious criminals and people who have recently crossed the border, while specifically placing a low priority on those who have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years.
The president spent months trying to gain a House vote on the Senate bill, frustrating immigration advocates and some Democrats who wanted him to instead take action on his own.