The new temporary work permission applies to an estimated 3.7 million immigrants who can prove they have been in the country at least five years, have at least one child born in the U.S., pay back taxes and “come forward and register, submit biometric data, pass background checks [and] pay fees,” according to a White House fact sheet.
An estimated 1 million more will be able to apply for protected status through expansion of programs for undocumented youth in college, skilled professionals and “foreign entrepreneurs.” Parents of eligible college students — dubbed “Dreamers” — are not included.
While those who apply for the three-years permission must meet strict eligibility and fee requirements, they are not offered a road to permanent residency or citizenship and remain barred from federal benefits, including food stamps, welfare, disability or Obamacare health insurance credits.
The order represents the government’s most significant immigration policy adjustment in recent years. But it’s not similar to legalization measures of past decades, which have been traditionally done under Republican administrations. The administration of President Ronald Reagan, for example, granted a broad amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants, the great majority of those without papers. “Mass amnesty would be unfair,” Obama said, while “mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character.”
Obama said the new program will allocate “additional resources for our law enforcement personnel” and continue to step up policing of the U.S.-Mexico border, as his administration and those before him have done. “Today we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history,” the president said.
The new policies build on the record of the Obama administration, the fact sheet says, which “has already increased the removal of criminals by more than 80 percent.” As part of a growing trend, the Obama administration has issued a record number of “removal order” deportations, which carry possible felony charges for those who return. The number of such orders has increased from some 50,000 in 1995 to more than 400,000 in 2012.
The executive order will replace the government’s Secure Communities program with a new Priority Enforcement Program “to remove those convicted of criminal offenses” and “recent border crossers,” said the fact sheet. No specific differences between the two were explained and both would rely on checking the status of those in police custody with immigration records. The implication of Obama’s phrases like “felons, not families,” is that the new program would use more discriminating guidelines on who is deported — which currently includes workers charged with minor infractions, such as traffic violations.
A 33-page Justice Department memo issued to provide legal justification for Obama’s decree says the president has unfettered “prosecutorial discretion.” Because the order seeks to further prosecution and deportation of “criminals,” the memo argues, it represents an exercise of those powers.
The White House move to sidestep opposition in Congress was rebuked by many Republican legislators. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican House majority leader, called it a “brazen power grab.”
Some Democratic officials also criticized Obama, who has issued nearly 200 executive orders since taking office in 2009. “The president shouldn’t make such significant policy changes on his own,” Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly said in a statement.
The reaction among Republicans to the new policy itself was varied. On the far end, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Obama of trying to increase the number of “illiterate” Democratic voters. “If you overreact, it becomes about us, not President Obama,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of several Republican politicians who voiced concern about alienating Latinos.
Some 100 immigrants and others came to watch Obama’s talk at the CASA de Maryland center in Hyattsville. Many who fit the criteria for temporary permission were ecstatic, others were not. “I’m so sad, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Marta Moran, an undocumented worker who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her son six years ago, told the New York Times. “My son was not born here. I do everything I can — I pay taxes, I’m learning English — but I don’t know what else to do.”
“If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” Obama said. “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.”
Penn. vigil demands release of Mexican immigrants
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