Obama extends deportation reprieve to 5 million undocumented immigrants

President Barack Obama announced an executive order on immigration reform Thursday, which he will sign on Friday. The actions will affect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants in the US, many of whom are the parents or spouses of legal residents.

Obama announced his plan for unilateral action on immigration via a prime-time address from the White House. He will sign the executive order during a rally in Las Vegas on Friday. Because the plan will not be passed by Congress, it could also be easily reversed by a new president after Obama’s term runs out in just over two years.

The president called his actions "a commonsense middle ground approach," as he continued to push Congress to pass a comprehensive bill reforming the country's immigration system. Under the terms of his order, undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for five years or more, and are parents of American citizens or lawful residents, will be subjected tocriminal and national security background checks. Once these are completed, they can pay taxes and defer deportation for three years at a time.

TheUS will also increase security at the borders and focus deportation efforts on criminals and potential security threats rather than families.

"Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character," Obama said in his remarks. "If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the US illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."

Obama also defend his decision to issue an executive order against Republicans and those who claim he is overreaching, arguing that every Republican and Democratic president in the last 50 years has used his authority similarly.

"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.

Already, the president's plan has come under fire from conservatives. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized Obama ahead of his speech, saying he is acting like "an emperor."

“Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he's acting on his own," he said in a video statement. "That is just not how our democracy works.”

The plan will include a temporary reprieve from deportation for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants ‒ which includes parents and spouses of US citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for at least five years. Those people may also be made eligible for work permits, but will not have a path to citizenship. Officials said the eligible immigrants will not be entitled to federal benefits ‒ including health care tax credits, food stamps, Medicaid coverage or other need-based federal programs ‒ under Obama's plan.

The plan will cover parents of legal residents, but not the parents who brought their children to the US illegally. In 2012, Obama authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals via executive action, which delayed deportation for the young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers. The actions will create a similar program for undocumented parents of children who are in the country legally. Expansions include raising the eligibility age beyond the current limit of 30 and allowing more recent arrivals (those who came after 2007) to apply, among other things.

“These people – our neighbors, our classmates, our friends – they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life,” Obama said Thursday. “They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America’s success.”

"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, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.

Notably, visas for migrant farm workers will not be expanded, reportedly over concerns about justifying the way that group would be treated compared to other laborers, like construction workers.

Obama’s orders will make up to 4 million undocumented immigrants eligible for temporary protective status and provide relief to another 1 million through other means, a senior Democrat familiar with the plans told the Post. There are roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the US currently.

The president’s plan also includes a program to facilitate visas for people who invest in the United States, as well as for those who pursue degrees in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. It will also modify federal immigrant detention procedures. Concerns were raised by immigrant rights activists over the summer, after current facilities were overwhelmed by an influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minor children and families with children illegally entering the country.

The actions also include steps to further secure the United States’ border with Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a Wednesday appearance at the National Press Club. The administration's lawyers have concluded that the president can legally issue these executive actions, despite intense opposition from Republicans, he noted.

"Legislative action is always preferable," Johnson said. "But we have waited for Congress to act, and the Congress has not acted. The president has waited."

Last Wednesday, following the Republican Party's takeover of the US Senate, Obama warned that he would take whatever lawful actions he feels are necessary to “improve the function of our immigration system,” following years of unsuccessful efforts from Congress to accomplish as much on its own. The White House says that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has previously pushed back on efforts from Democratic lawmakers to introduce immigration reform, and the results of November’s midterm elections will soon see to it that the GOP has a majority in the Senate as well next session. Republicans have threatened to impeach the president over the immigration executive actions.

By taking executive action, it is likely that Obama will derail any opportunities to cooperate with the GOP majority in Congress during the rest of his term, including on bipartisan initiatives like tax reform, among other issues.

However, he urged Congress not to let disagreements over immigration to prohibit them from moving forward on other issues.

"I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution," he added. "And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary."

"Meanwhile, don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this. Americans are tired of gridlock. What our country needs from us right now is a common purpose – a higher purpose."