BARACK Obama has acted to spare nearly five million illegal immigrants in the United States from deportation, setting off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers.
In a televised address to the nation, Mr Obama defended the legality of his executive actions and challenged Republican politicians 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,” Mr Obama said, flexing his presidential powers just two weeks after his political standing was challenged in the midterm elections.
His address marked the first step in an effort to promote executive actions to the public.Despite Mr Obama’s challenge to Republicans to pass a broader immigration bill, his actions and the angry response from his political rivals could largely stamp out those prospects for the rest of his presidency, ensuring the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 elections.
Republicans, emboldened by sweeping victories in the midterms, are weighing responses to the president’s actions that include lawsuits, a government shutdown and possibly even impeachment.
“The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward,” Senator Mitch McConnell, who is soon to become the Senate majority leader, said.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
While the president’s measures are sweeping in scope, they still leave more than half of the 11 million people living in the US illegally in limbo.
Mr Obama announced new deportation priorities that will compel law enforcement agencies to focus their 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 US for more than ten years.
He spent months trying to gain a vote in the House of Representatives on the Senate bill, frustrating immigration advocates and some Democrats who wanted him to take action on his own.
The White House then began exploring options for unilateral action. But the process has been beset by delays, especially by Mr Obama’s decision to hold off announcing the executive orders until after the midterms. Some Democrats had feared it would hurt their chances of keeping control of the Senate, though the White House’s delay ultimately did little to stem their defeats.
The main beneficiaries are immigrants who have been in the US illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. The administration expects about 4.1 million people to qualify.
Mr Obama will also expand eligibility to people who arrived as minors before 2010, instead of the current cut-off of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31. This will affect about 300,000 people.
Immigration-rights activists gathered at parties around the country to listen to the president announce actions they have been seeking for years. “This is a great day for farmworkers. It’s been worth the pain and sacrifice,” Jesus Zuniga, a 40-year-old tomato-picker in California, said.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS