President Barack Obama could announce expansive executive action on immigration as soon as next week, according to White House officials, a move that would enrage Congressional Republicans while protecting millions from being deported.
The details of Obama's plan are still sketchy, but initial reports indicate the president is prepared to dramatically expand his deferred action program—allowing the parents of children who are legal residents or citizens of the United States to avoid deportation proceedings—and could also expand the eligibility for the current deferred action program, which allows children who were brought to the United States and remained in violation of the law to stay in the country.
Citing "administration officials who have direct knowledge of the plan," the New York Times reported Thursday:
Asserting his authority as president to enforce the nation’s laws with discretion, Mr. Obama intends to order changes that will significantly refocus the activities of the government’s 12,000 immigration agents. One key piece of the order, officials said, will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent away.
According to The Hill, "[i]t’s not yet clear how many millions of people would be eligible for the new protections; the White House is reportedly still weighing how long immigrant parents would need to have resided in the U.S. to be eligible for the program. But according to the reports, between 2.5 million and 4.5 million of the nation’s estimated 11.7 million illegal immigrants could qualify."
"President Obama has an opportunity to cement his legacy as a bold visionary, but only if the reform he enacts meets the challenge the dysfunctional immigration system presents."
—Marielena Hincapié, National Immigration Law Center
Fox News said the draft plan contains 10 initiatives that cover everything from boosting border security to improving pay for immigration officers to "revising removal priorities to target serious criminals for deportation." In addition, a source close to the White House told Fox that high-tech jobs through a State Department immigrant visa program would offer another half-million immigrants—and their spouses—a path to citizenship.
In response to Obama's potential unilateral action, Congressional Republicans have split into competing factions, the Washington Post reported, "with some pushing to use the party’s new grip on Congress to contest changes to the law incrementally in the months ahead" and others seeking "to block the president’s decision by shutting down the government."
According to the New York Times:
Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday afternoon that if Mr. Obama went forward on his own, House Republicans would 'fight the president tooth and nail.'
Mr. Boehner is considering suing Mr. Obama over immigration — as Republicans have said they might do on the president’s— and on Thursday he refused to rule out a government shutdown, despite saying that was not his goal.
'We are looking at all options, and they’re on the table,' Mr. Boehner said.
The Wall Street Journal explained:
More than 50 House lawmakers have signed a letter saying that language barring the president from acting alone should be attached to legislation needed to keep the government operating after Dec. 11, when its current funding expires.
Others in the party, including GOP leaders, are wary of forcing a budget showdown with the president over the issue, saying voters are eager for politicians to work together. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who is poised to become Senate majority leader in January, has said flatly that there will be no government shutdown like the one in 2013 that was politically harmful to his party.
The result is that barely a week after their broad election victories, party leaders will have to decide whether to override conservatives’ demands in favor of a more pragmatic approach. Party leaders also will have to decide when and how hard to fight the president over immigration, an issue that is important to the growing bloc of Hispanic voters who are expected to carry more sway in the 2016 elections than they did this fall.
Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer went as far as to say executive action was "an impeachable offense."
Experts have pointed out that past Republican presidents have not been shy to use the White House’s power to retool immigration policy. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both used executive action to enact reform in the face of Congressional inaction, argued Mark Noferi in The Hill.
"The success of the Reagan-Bush family fairness policy serves as a strikingly similar historical precedent for Obama," Noferi wrote. "Bush Sr. 'went big' to treat families fairly—deferring deportations for over 40 percent of unauthorized immigrants. Reportedly, Obama’s actions could be similarly broad and help up to 5 million immigrants—over 40 percent of today’s unauthorized population. Bush Sr.’s actions gave immigrants a safe haven and spurred the House to act without negative impacts in the subsequent midterms. And the Reagan-Bush fairness policy deferred deportations to protect families, compared to previous uses of presidential authority to protect war refugees or immigrants stranded by a foreign policy crisis."
"We don’t know what executive action Obama will take," Noferi concluded. "But we can say with certainty that presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush led the way."
Immigration advocates, who were furious at Obama's decision in September to delay executive action on immigration, are pressuring Obama to make a swift, bold move.
"No more excuses," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, two days after Election Day. "The president has ample constitutional authority to do what’s right, both from a political and policy perspective, by creating a process for aspiring citizens to apply for the opportunity to work lawfully and contribute more fully to their communities. In doing so, he’ll improve our economy and restore the immigrant community’s confidence in a government that for too long has focused only on how to maximize detention and deportation."
"Members of both parties should take note: Demographic realities will ensure that election night 2016 will look more like 2012 and less like yesterday," Hincapié added. "These voters care about what happens to their immigrant parents, friends, and colleagues. President Obama has an opportunity to cement his legacy as a bold visionary, but only if the reform he enacts meets the challenge the dysfunctional immigration system presents."