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IMMIGRATION STAGE SET

Tonight, the president will announce his plan to protect millions from deportation.
Published Nov. 20, 2014

President Barack Obama will announce steps tonight to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, delivering on a long-anticipated promise while setting up a contentious fight with Republicans who question his authority.

"Everybody agrees that our immigration system is broken," Obama said in a Facebook video Wednesday previewing the 8 p.m. speech from the White House. "Unfortunately Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long."

His actions would pull back the threat of deportation on as many as 5 million undocumented residents, expanding on action he took in 2012 for young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents. Hundreds of thousands of "Dreamers" have obtained work permits under that program.

The 5 million estimate includes parents and spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for a while (specifics were not released Wednesday) as well as others not included in the 2012 program.

The executive order would not grant citizenship, and health care tax credits or other federal benefits would not be available, according to officials. A future president could undo the moves.

Obama is likely to frame the discussion in law-and-order terms, saying it will free up resources to focus on deporting serious criminals and preventing more people from crossing the border.

The move has been in the works for months after comprehensive immigration reform legislation died in Congress due to opposition from House Republicans, who deemed a Senate-passed bill as amnesty and wanted to focus on more border security.

Immigration activists and Democrats have pressured Obama to act, even as many say the best solution is through legislation. "I want the president to do it as strong as he possibly can," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.

"It's an exciting moment, but it's been long overdue," said Isabel Sousa, Central Florida organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "There's many people we've lost (to deportation) along the way. We know this isn't a permanent solution. We still need Congress to step up."

Obama in the video said he would work under "my lawful authority as president to make the system work better even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem."

Republicans, however, questioned that authority and said his actions would ruin chances for compromise on Capitol Hill. They dug up past statements from Obama casting doubt on how far he could go to prevent deportations.

"I'm not the emperor of the United States," the president said in February 2013 during a Google Hangout. "My job is to execute laws that are passed, and Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system."

Some Republican governors have suggested a lawsuit. Other say the best response is to use budget moves to prevent Obama's actions, but party leaders worry it would cause another government shutdown and draw public backlash.

"Congress, representing the voice of the people, should use every tool available to prevent the president from subverting the rule of law," Sen. Ted Cruz, the deeply conservative Texan and potential 2016 presidential candidate, wrote in a piece published Wednesday in Politico, saying Obama would be to blame.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said from the chamber floor: "The president may think of this executive action as a political victory in a year filled with so many failures and defeats for him and his party. But history will surely view it as a serious blow to the system of checks and balances established by the Framers."

The White House said it was confident Obama was on firm footing and he had already worked to prevent the deportation of the Dreamers, though the protection is only temporary.

Through the third quarter of this year, more than 675,000 young undocumented immigrants have been covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Of those, about 23,200 are from Florida.

Other presidents have used executive authority to deal with immigration issues. Ronald Reagan acted to include people who were not included in a 1986 amnesty program approved by Congress. In 1990, George H.W. Bush extended protection to more people.

The debate then was pale in comparison to today, in part because the number of illegal immigrants skyrocketed in the ensuing years, reaching a peak of about 12.2 million in 2007. Today it stands at about 11 million; about 925,000 in Florida.

In a vivid illustration of the heat around the issue, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who helped write the Senate bill, was hammered by conservative activists, damage that he has spent the past year trying to repair.

Rubio has reverted to a border-security first position and says it is lawmakers' role to address the issue. He, too, says Obama should not act unilaterally.

"Taking executive action along the lines that have been reported would flaunt the separation of powers and our system of checks and balances, undermine the rule of law, and frustrate the proper administration of our current immigration system," Rubio wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Obama. The letter was signed by fellow Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also were authors of the Senate's bipartisan bill.

Obama's speech tonight will be followed up by a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Friday. Two years ago, at the same location, he laid out principles for comprehensive reform.

In Florida, immigration lawyers are already getting phone calls from people eager for more detail.

"There is an enormous amount of excitement," said John Ovink, a lawyer in Tampa and Dade City, adding that about 60 percent of his clients are the parents or spouses of U.S. citizens and likely would be eligible. Of Obama he said, "He's waited. He's waited. He's waited. I'm so excited that's he's finally doing something."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Watch the speech

President Barack Obama will make a televised speech at 8 tonight.

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