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Obama Defends Immigration Action

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks on his executive action on immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nov. 21, 2014.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on his executive action on immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nov. 21, 2014.

U.S. President Barack Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on "felons, not families; criminals, not children."

The president said Saturday in his weekly address that his immigration plan will "bring more undocumented immigrants out of the shadows so they can play by the rules, pay their full share of taxes, pass a criminal background check, and get right with the law."

On Friday, Obama said the American immigration system has been broken for a long time as he defended taking executive action to overhaul the system.

The president told a rally Friday in Las Vegas that he has been committed to solving the immigration problem since he took office, and he said today he is doing something about it. He also said he will not give up on his efforts to work with Congress to make his actions permanent.

Obama's plan will offer temporary work permits and lift the threat of deportation for nearly five million undocumented immigrants. It is set to take effect in about six months. He noted Congress had 512 days to pass an immigration reform bill that could have been signed into law by now.

Obama said, "Our immigration system has been broken for a very long time, and everybody knows it. ... I will not give up. I want to keep working with Members of Congress to make reform a reality."

The president then repeatedly called on Congress to pass an immigration bill, saying the issue "deserves more than politics" and that deporting millions "is not realistic."

During his speech, some criticized the president for not going far enough to help undocumented immigrants. Others said he went too far, including protesters outside the Las Vegas High school, who held signs saying, “Impeach Obama” and “No amnesty.”

Aboard Air Force One Friday, Obama signed two memorandums -- one streamlining the visa process, and the other creating a White House Task Force for New Americans.

Watch related video report by VOA's Victoria Macchi:


Congressional reaction

Earlier Friday, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said Obama "is damaging the presidency" by bypassing Congress to take executive action on immigration.

Boehner vowed that House Republicans will "not stand idle" and will fight the unilateral action. As proof, the House on the same day filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over his earlier signature health care reform legislation.

5 Republican presidents who used executive orders to change immigration policy

5 Republican presidents who used executive orders to change immigration policy

The House speaker said the immigration reforms Obama laid out Thursday evening in an emotional speech from the White House "will only encourage more people to come here illegally" and risk their lives. He said the executive order also sabotages "any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms."

Order’s Impact on Unauthorized Immigrants:

  • Enables immigrants living in the U.S. for at least five years to apply for program protecting them from deportation and granting permission to work
  • Expands existing program for “dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Ends age limit for qualification
  • Makes it easier and faster for highly skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to U.S. economy
  • Allocates additional border resources to curb illegal crossings and speed illegal entrants’ return
  • Does not extend public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps or other need-based federal aid offered to citizens and some legal residents.

Sources: whitehouse.gov, VOA reports

Obama also discussed immigration when he arrived in Las Vegas, before his address to a rally at a high school.

"If you've been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes -- you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," he said.

Constitutionality questioned

Republicans have slammed the order as amnesty and say it is unconstitutional.

But it is not clear how Republicans will choose to fight back. Some have threatened to shut down the government, while others are looking for ways to ban funding for just the plan itself.

Many have said they will challenge the order in court, but numerous legal experts have said the president's moves have legal precedent.

Obama defended the move's legality, saying both Democratic and Republican presidents have for decades passed similar orders. He blamed gridlock in Congress for making such action necessary.

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"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, I have one answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution," said the president.

Immigration reform bill on hold

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed an immigration reform bill more than a year ago, which was supported by both parties. But leaders in the Republican-controlled House have refused to bring a bill up for a vote.

It became even more unlikely that Congress would pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill after this month's mid-term elections, which saw Republicans hold onto control of the House and gain a majority in the Senate. The new Congress takes office in January.

Relief imminent

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally.

One young man benefited from an earlier presidential order, and his parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.

At 21 years old, Bati Tsogtsaikhan is one of an estimated nine million people in the United States who lives in a mixed-status family.

The George Mason University junior was born in Mongolia and until two years ago, was undocumented. His little brother is a U.S. citizen. And his parents still have no legal status.

“They’re always afraid something will happen. They always have a backup plan for if they’re deported," said Tsogtsaikhan

That could change next year under Obama's temporary reprieve ordered Thursday.

Just Neighbors is a non-profit organization in northern Virginia that offers low-cost legal aid to immigrants. Legal Services Director Dominique Poirier said the threat of separation for mixed status families like Bati's is very real.

"It’s pervasive, and it creates depression and anxiety," she said, adding that uneasiness infiltrates daily life for undocumented immigrants.

Bati lived that fear until he was protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program two years ago. Now he can work legally, drive, and avoid deportation as long as he keeps a clean criminal record. That plan, known as DACA, is the basis for the new decision for parents.

And he expects his parents' life to improve the same way his has.

“Now that they can work legally, it means they can get better paying jobs. Work less hours. Take care of my brother. So it means that life is going to get better for all of us, as a whole.”

VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande and VOA's Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.

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