Obama to announce immigration steps Thursday
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sidestepping Congress, President Barack Obama on Thursday will announce steps he will take to shield up to 5 million immigrants illegally in the United States from deportation, defying Republican lawmakers who say such a step would poison relations with the new GOP led legislature.
Obama, in a video released on Facebook, said he would make his announcement from the White House at 8 p.m. EST on Thursday, then would travel to Las Vegas to promote the plan Friday.
He said while everyone agrees the immigration system is broken, Washington has allowed the problem "to fester for too long."
"What I'm going to be laying out is the things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system better, even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem," Obama said.
As many as 5 million people in the country illegally would be spared from deportation and made eligible for work permits. But the eligible immigrants would not be entitled to federal benefits - including health care tax credits - under the plan, officials said Wednesday.
Obama was to speak at Las Vegas' Del Sol High School, a school with a large population of non-English speaking students where Obama unveiled his blueprint for comprehensive immigration legislation in 2013.
Republicans are vehemently opposed to the president's likely actions, with some conservative members threatening to pursue a government shutdown if Obama follows through on his promises to act before the end of the year.
A wide-ranging immigration bill passed the Senate last year, but stalled in the Republican-led House. Obama vowed this summer to instead pursue changes to the immigration system using his own authority but delayed the measures until after the midterm elections, in part because of concerns from some Democrats facing tough races.
Democrats still lost control of the Senate in the midterm balloting.
One official familiar with the administration's planning said the beneficiaries of Obama's new executive action would be treated in the same manner as those immigrants who were shielded from deportation and who became eligible for work permits under an Obama directive in 2012. The 2012 executive action deferred deportations for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. The official discussed the limits of Obama's action on the condition of anonymity, lacking authority to speak on the record at this point.
Those immigrants covered by the 2012 action, called Dreamers by their advocates, can obtain work permits but are not eligible for food stamps, federal welfare benefits or disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program. They also are ineligible for tax credits under Obama's health care law, though they can buy health coverage at full price on the exchanges created by the law. They may be eligible for public benefits provided by some states, however.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that Obama's executive actions will be comprehensive and include border security measures. He said he believes that immigration changes that Obama will announce are not only legal but needed in light of inaction by Congress on immigration.
Johnson spoke briefly about the president's plan during an event at the National Press Club on Wednesday, but he didn't provide any details.
House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman criticized Obama's plans, noting that the president himself has said in the past that he is not "emperor" and is limited in his ability to act on his own.
"If `Emperor Obama' ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his Constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue - and many others," the spokesman, Michael Steel, said.
Astrid Silva, an organizer for the group Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the president "has a duty to keep his promise and use his full legal authority to take action where Congress has failed." The group said the White House has been in touch with Nevada activists about the trip.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are deeply divided and have spent much of the week intensely debating how to respond. By timing his announcement for the Friday before Thanksgiving, with Congress on recess all of next week, Obama gives the public some time to react to his announcement before Congress has a chance to respond.
Orange County, California-based immigration lawyer Annaluisa Padilla said she's getting twice as many calls as usual since buzz intensified over the plan, which would also grant the immigrants work permits.
"It's like the golden ticket," she said. "Everybody who is calling my office is asking how can I get a work permit under Obama's program? I am like, there is no Obama program yet."
Immigrant advocacy groups in Southern California are planning workshops to inform community members about the order, including a 12,000-person forum at the Los Angeles Convention Center in mid-December, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center is planning a to start a text messaging system targeting immigrants across the state, especially those in rural areas where legal services might not be easily accessible. Immigrant advocates in Florida are planning the same, and will also start a hotline in English and Spanish to keep community members informed.
In New York, immigration lawyers and nonprofits are preparing to hold clinics to help screen immigrants for the program.
Mayra Gallegos, a 33-year-old mother of two and trained nurse, is pinning her hopes on Obama's plan. She came from Mexico a decade ago to join her husband, who has since gotten a green card. Her younger son was born here, and is an American. But she and her elder son have not been able to get their papers.
"What Obama is going to do, if he does it, would really help me and my son," said Gallegos, who hopes to find a job as a nurse should she receive a work permit. "We're always watching to see if there's any news."
But some advocates warned immigrants not to get their hopes up yet - especially with lawmakers threatening to thwart Obama's plan.
"What I am telling my families to do is be prepared for war. We're going to see a legislative arm do whatever they can to stop the president," said Jessica Dominguez, an immigration attorney in Southern California. "I am not going to let my community be saddened again by words. We need action."