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His immigration plan opens a battle with the GOP in Congress.
Published Nov. 21, 2014

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced the most dramatic changes to immigration policy in decades, protecting 5 million people - roughly 40 percent of the undocumented population in the United States - from deportation, arguing his actions were legal and not amnesty.

Hundreds of miles away in Lakeland, a 29-year-old mother of three watched on television, joyful and relieved. "It makes me very happy," said Amalia Tamariz, who arrived in the country 14 years ago from Nicaragua and would qualify under Obama's executive order because her children are U.S. citizens.

Her past efforts to gain protection have fallen short for various reasons and with her driver's license set to expire soon, she fears being pulled over and detained or deported.

"It's scary. I have my family here, my children here. I have an opportunity to go to college and get a job. I just want a better life," said Tamariz, who is a supermarket cashier and is finishing her GED with a goal of becoming a nurse.

Obama's actions opened up questions of presidential power and ignited a fierce battle with Republicans, who have vowed to retaliate. The president justified his actions by saying he stepped in to solve a problem Congress would not.

"That's the real amnesty - leaving this broken system the way it is," Obama said during the 8 p.m. televised address, using a word that critics invoked repeatedly. "Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character.

"What I'm describing is accountability - a commonsense, middle-ground approach: 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 U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."

The president's action was the culmination of an exhaustive struggle on Capitol Hill to pass immigration reform, a failed effort that deepened partisan divisions and led to increasing pressure from fellow Democrats and immigrants that he act alone.

"He has admitted himself on more than 20 occasions that this decision exceeds his authority," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee. "Over the coming days and weeks, the House of Representatives will take clear and decisive action to reverse this decision and constrain this imperial presidency."

Obama invoked similar steps by past presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, though those were less expansive. While he would temporarily protect 5 million people from deportation, Obama also said it would free up resources to expel serious criminals and recent border-crossers.

The bulk of those protected, about 4.1 million, are parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. The parents will have to have lived here for at least five years, pass a background check and pay fees and become taxpayers. People would be eligible to apply next spring and relief would be good for three years.

Only Congress can provide a long-term solution and Obama is banking on the realization that despite the heat around the issue, there is no appetite to round up and deport people who have committed no crime other than coming to the country illegally or overstaying a visa. "You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," Obama said, stressing it would not apply to recent or future arrivals.

Obama also will expand his 2012 "deferred action" program aimed at young immigrants, often called Dreamers, brought to the country illegally by their parents. Those eligible will have had to have arrived before 2010, more generous than the current 2007. The age cap of 31 years will also be lifted.

Other significant changes include replacing a controversial Secure Communities program that has required local law enforcement to hand over to immigration officials people arrested for local, minor crimes. A new Priority Enforcement Program would establish a higher bar for detaining people.

Republicans threatened to retaliate in various ways, from budget maneuvers to refusing to confirm Obama's nominees to passing legislation. But Obama put the GOP in a delicate spot as the party has sought to broaden its appeal to a growing minority voter base. Some House Republicans were already throwing out heated rhetoric. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told reporters Wednesday that Obama would be converting "illiterate" immigrants into Democratic voters, even though the order does not confer citizenship and the privileges that come with that. Some Democrats fretted a terrible climate on Capitol Hill would only get worse.

All along, Obama said his preferred route was legislation and he bluntly challenged lawmakers to take up the issue and make permanent change to laws that have not been broadly altered since 1986. "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," the president said Thursday, "I have one answer: Pass a bill."

The Senate approved comprehensive reform in 2013 on a bipartisan vote, but it ran into a wall of opposition from House Republicans, who rejected providing 11 million undocumented residents with an eventual path to citizenship. Some Republicans are open to changes - though citizenship remains a stumbling block - but the party has insisted on tougher border enforcement.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, who helped write the Senate's bill, said immigration reform is needed but stressed security. "The President's actions now make all of this harder and are unfair to people in our immigration system who are doing things the right way."

The Obama administration has boasted that it has devoted vast resources to border security. Under Obama, more than 2 million people have been deported, including a record 438,000 in 2013, more than half of whom did not have a prior criminal conviction.

That led to protests outside the White House from immigrant groups who said Obama was tearing up families. On Thursday night the same activists staged parties across the country to watch Obama's speech while others waved American flags and signs outside the White House.

They cast it as a historic moment, but there was disappointment, too. While many parents of immigrants will qualify, those without children who are U.S. citizens or are lawful permanent residents will not. The Obama administration concluded there was no authority to grant such relief and that it would have to come through Congress.

"I feel really happy for those people who will benefit. But you can't stop thinking about all those parents who won't be able to step out of the shadows, and to know my mother is one of them, it just breaks my heart," said Oscar Hernandez, 24, of Lutz.

He was shielded from deportation under Obama's 2012 deferred action program for Dreamers. Earlier this year, when word spread Obama was preparing broader steps, he was hopeful his mother, Maria, would benefit, too. She will not because she does not have children who are U.S. citizens.


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