President Obama invited as many as 5 million immigrants and international visitors Thursday to openly live and work in the U.S., a controversial, unilateral demonstration of his power that signaled a new phase of activism for the remainder of his presidency.
Without a vote from Congress, Obama set in motion a government program that, starting next year, will begin to evaluate applicants and enroll those eligible to protect them from deportation.
The majority of those affected under the executive action, about 4.1 million, could be eligible for a program that will invite parents of either U.S. citizens or long-term permanent residents to apply for a work permit and three years of protection from deportation. Applicants will have to prove they have been in the country at least five years.
In making his case to the nation, Obama quoted Scripture and President George W. Bush, and defended his right to act without lawmakers by citing executive decisions on immigration made by “every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century.”
Wearing a solemn dark suit and repeatedly pointing his finger, Obama challenged lawmakers who doubt his authority to act.
“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,” he said.
Short of any legislation, the president is also ordering an expansion of a program that defers deportation of people who arrived in the U.S. as children before June 2007. By opening the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to people who immigrated as recently as 2010 and removing a cap on the age of the applicant, the directive will make roughly 300,000 more people eligible.
Obama will make other changes affecting another 600,000 people, in part by expanding and adding visas for entrepreneurs and recent graduates in science and technology.
The moves follow a months-long tug-of-war between the White House and Republican lawmakers, who accuse Obama of a power grab, and another with immigration activists, who pressed for the president to act in the wake of Congress' failure to pass comprehensive legislation.
It is also the result of a turnabout of Obama's own views on his authority. He had long said he did not have the power to act as broadly as advocates sought, and Republicans have seized on his earlier comments in their criticism of his plan.
But with the major portion of the program dependent on application fees, not the appropriations of Congress, aides think the president has some latitude to operate without the approval of lawmakers.
Republicans in Congress will still have plenty of levers to fight him, starting with their role in keeping the government running. If they refuse to approve a budget and shut down the government, no federal employees will be available to collect applications or application fees.
“If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act,” vowed Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “We're considering a variety of options. But make no mistake. When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.”
Yet the greatest threat to the president's action could be its own design. Authorized by White House fiat, the initiative doesn't bind future presidents who might disagree with the sweeping protections for people who entered and live in the U.S. in violation of the law.
In arguing that the executive action is within the bounds of the law and Constitution, its architects noted that it is temporary and revocable. It relies largely on the concept of discretion as it is exercised every day by prosecutors.
One senior Obama administration official insisted repeatedly Thursday, “It is not a pathway to citizenship.”
Obama and Democrats are betting on the idea that the more people who enroll, the harder it will be for the next president to take away the protections.
Latino voters already represent a significant portion of the American electorate.
The major changes will come as directives from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to his agency, not as an executive order from Obama, policy advisors to the president said. That's in keeping with earlier actions Obama has taken on immigration.
In addition to Obama's other changes, a new memorandum from Johnson will alter his agency's priorities for deportation. Immigration officers will be instructed not to deport people who were convicted before 2014 of low-level immigration violations.
The priorities for deportation will be revamped to fast-track removal of suspected terrorists and people convicted of gang crimes or other serious felonies.
The second level of priority for removal will be of people with “significant” misdemeanors, multiple misdemeanors or immigration violations committed after Jan. 1, 2014.
A third level of priority will be for people who failed to abide by a removal order given after Jan. 1 and those who left the U.S. and re-entered illegally after that date.
In a move that disappointed some immigration activists, the architects of the plan rejected the idea of offering protections to parents of children who got work permits two years ago through a deferred-deportation program for people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. Advisors to the president said they couldn't legally justify it.
Still, Obama spoke mostly as an appeal to the better nature of Americans.
“We are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too,” he said. “And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in.”
“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty,” Obama said. “Well, it's not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today — millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.
“Mass amnesty would be unfair,” he said. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I'm describing is accountability — a common-sense, middle-ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
The changes Obama directed ensure accountability and focus resources on removing troublemakers, not law-abiding workers, White House officials argue.
But as details began to become public Thursday, Republicans were not comforted.
They have long chafed at Obama's strategy of acting without them to implement his policy priorities. When they gain control of both chambers of Congress next year, they could move to block his new policy by changing the immigration law that provides the basis for the executive action.
Lawmakers could also go after funding for border patrol and enforcement agencies.
“Clearer, more robust language from Congress that puts limits on presidential power can come through amendments to this act,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
The risks of a presidential veto are high, he said, but the effort could provide leverage for dealing with the White House.
“Approaching the amendments to the act as a means of negotiating with the White House toward large-scale or piecemeal immigration reform may be possible,” Hudak wrote in a briefing.
On Thursday afternoon, that point drew a laugh from one senior administration staffer.
If the new policy finally draws Republicans into a conversation about reforming immigration law, the staffer said, “we welcome that.”
Obama has long said he would tear up his executive action if Congress passes immigration reform, but a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last year was never voted on in the House.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, offered advice.
“Republicans shouldn't get mad. They should get even,” he said. “They should nullify the president's executive order by passing our bill and passing it now. If the Republicans want to stop this executive order, they have an ace up their sleeve that would do the trick — a common-sense, bipartisan immigration reform bill.”
Michael A. Memoli, Kathleen Hennessey and Timothy M. Phelps in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.