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Obama Unveils Sweeping Immigration Reform


U.S. President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, Nov. 20, 2014.

President Barack Obama has bypassed Congress on immigration reform, saying the country can no longer wait to fix a broken system.

The president unveiled his plan during a televised primetime address, in which he outlined a plan to temporarily protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, allowing parents whose children are U.S. citizens or in the U.S. legally to qualify for work permits.

"What I’m describing is accountability — a common-sense, 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," he said. "If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."

Many Republicans have expressed outrage over Obama's decision to use an executive order to put forth his plan, instead of the usual congressional legislative process.

Republicans have also described the shielding of illegal immigrants from deportation as an act of granting amnesty to criminals.

Obama acknowledged that criticism directly. "Leaving this broken system the way it is" ... "that's the real amnesty," he said. He then called mass amnesty "unfair" and "mass deportation ... both impossible and contrary to our character."

Obama has waited more than a year for House Republican leaders to put an immigration reform plan to a vote after the Democrat-controlled Senate passed one. Despite disagreements on how to resolve the immigration problem, the glut of unaccompanied children on the Texas border earlier this year convinced Americans that the issue no longer can wait, a point Obama emphasized in his message.

Officials say the president is acting legally and that he is still willing to work with Congress.

Hispanics welcome action, with reservations

Many Hispanics are welcoming the announcement by Obama. In Los Angeles, many immigrants gathered to watch the televised announcement.

Twenty-three-year-old Diana Ramos, who was born in Mexico, says the action will help her parents, who are undocumented, but have children who are U.S. citizens. That qualifies them for relief under the plan.

“This brings a lot of hope for my family that we won’t have to live with fear any more,” she said.

Pilar Galvez, a U.S. citizen born in El Salvador, said the move will help many who have entered the United States from her native country.

“I am happy that Obama is doing this for families that are working hard to bring better [things] for their families to and bring better [things] to the United States,” said Galvez.

In Houston, Texas, another state with a large Hispanic population, Jesus Mejia, a Guatemalan immigrant, is pleased with the president.

He said it is something good, that it is human to understand the situation of an immigrant who came to the United States out of necessity.

But Teresa, a U.S. citizen who came from Ecuador, wonders if the president is delaying lasting reform by not working with Congress.

She said both should be in agreement to produce a plan that will benefit many people. She also worries about undocumented migrants with criminal backgrounds staying in the country.

Xiomara Corpeno of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles called the president’s action an important step, but said a lasting solution must do more.

“We know that it has to be bipartisan. The Republicans just need to wake up and realize that if they want to include everyone in this country, they need to pass immigration reform,” said Corpeno.

Republican responses

Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, soon to be Senate majority leader, says his party will consider a number of options to thwart the president. Some Republicans are threatening another government shutdown, while others want to ban funding for Obama's immigration plan.

McConnell also said the president's plan was aimed at securing his political legacy.

"The action he's proposed would ignore the law, would reject the voice of the voters and would impose new unfairness on law-abiding immigrants, all without solving the problem," McConnell said.

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Obama's plan goes far beyond similar action taken by former president George H.W. Bush.

"This is millions of people. It’s a hundred times larger than a similar thing that advocates are pointing to that the first President Bush did," said Krikorian.

Some analysts, such as Klaus Larres, professor of international relations at the University of North Carolina, say the Republican threat will remain rhetorical.

“There will be lots of verbal attacks on the Obama administration, on the president personally, but once the new Congress is in office and has settled in, I don't think that any counter-action to Obama's plan will be taken that will be effective,” said Larres.

Toward the end of the address, Obama called on Congress to pass legislation.

"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,” he said.

Obama is also expected to expand an executive order he signed in 2012, known as the Dream Act, that protects young immigrants who came to the United States as children from deportation by lifting the age restrictions on people who qualify. The parents of these children, however, would not be eligible for delayed deportation.

Undocumented immigrants eligible for these protections would not be entitled to receive federal benefits, including subsidies to obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Obama will sign the order Friday in Las Vegas, Nevada, which has a large Hispanic population.

Immigration lawyers warn of troubles

On Thursday, as details of the plan circulated, immigration lawyers warned that Obama's televised address may prove the easiest part of his controversial plan. Implementing it will be difficult and many people may never benefit, some lawyers said.

Immigration advocacy groups say they don't have sufficient resources to provide legal services to their existing clients, never mind the millions of potential new ones.

Obama's proposal is not expected to provide federal funding for attorneys to guide immigrants through the process.

Karla McKanders, who runs the immigration law clinic at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, told Reuters, “If the past is any indication, it's going to be a significant increase in people asking for legal assistance."

Also, immigrants who have lived illegally in the United States for many years can be afraid to sign up or lack the proper documentation to back up their claims, said Jacqueline Rishty from the Immigration Legal Services Program of Catholic Charities in Washington.

The lack of immigration lawyers also opens the door for self-described legal experts who give bad advice or even scam clients out of thousands of dollars. The American Bar Association has warned of fraudsters offering legal services in Spanish-speaking communities.

Executive orders

U.S. presidents through the years have decreed a variety of changes through executive action, decisions that often attract little public attention.

Just since July, Obama has issued 10 executive orders, none of them controversial. Among other things, they established an advisory council for U.S. businesses in Africa, revised a list of communicable diseases and set the terms for hiring alcohol, tobacco and firearms agents.

But some executive orders have played prominent roles in shaping U.S. history and often were controversial at the time or proved to be when examined with the passage of time.

Executive Orders on Immigration
Executive Orders on Immigration

President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that forcibly transferred Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, an act for which the country has subsequently apologized and paid reparations to the victims.

Later, President Harry Truman abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. armed forces with a 1948 executive order and nationalized all steel mills during a 1952 labor strike.

President Dwight Eisenhower decreed an end to racial segregation in the country's public schools in 1957.

Through the years, other presidents have issued many more executive orders than Obama.

Several executive orders have been overturned in court challenges, including Truman's steel mill decree. New presidents can also override their predecessors' orders with new directives, while Congress can attempt to undo the orders through legislation.

VOA correspondents Mike O'Sullivan in Los Angeles and Zlatica Hoke in Washington contributed to this report. Portions of this report are from Reuters.

Obama to Make Immigration Announcement Thursday
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