President Barack Obama unveiled his executive order that will shield about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation in a primetime address from the White House on Thursday evening. Top Republicans responded by hinting they could push the government towards another shutdown.
“For more than 200 years our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial, ” Obama said, adding, “But today, our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it.”
Obama noted immigrants who “enter our country the right way and play by the rules” have to “watch others flout the rules” and he said “business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less.”
“All of us take offence to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America,” said the president. “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows or risk their families being torn apart.”
Many Republicans oppose Obama’s decision to take executive action and have argued it is unconstitutional. The current Democrat-controlled Senate passed an immigration reform bill that has been stalled by the House. Obama pointed to this legislation in his speech and argued he was forced to act on his own because it was blocked by GOP leadership in the House.
“I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix and last year 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense,” Obama said.
According to Obama, the Senate bill would have “doubled the number of border patrol agents while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line.” He argued the bill would have passed the House in spite of its Republican majority if the leadership had allowed it to come up for a “simple” vote. Obama stressed he would prefer to have Congress pass immigration legislation, but was spurred to take executive action because the bill was blocked.
“Had the House of Representatives allowed that kind of bill a simple yes or no vote it would have passed with support from both parties and, today, it would be the law. But for a year-and-a-half now Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote,” said the president. “Now, I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law. But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president, the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me, that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”
Some House Republicans who oppose Obama’s executive action have suggested they could use an upcoming government funding bill to block the money needed for the president’s proposal. The deadline for that bill is Dec. 11 and, if it is not funded, it could create a situation similar to the government shutdown that occurred last year.
In response to Obama’s remarks, many top Republicans made statements indicating they would support congressional efforts to block his plan.
On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who will head the GOP majority in the Senate when the new Congress begins next year, issued a statement on Obama’s proposal. McConnell vowed the new Republican-led Senate and House majority would take action against Obama’s order when they take office.
“If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act,” McConnell said. “We’re considering a variety of options. But make no mistake. When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.”
A little over an hour before the president’s address, Republican House Speaker John Boehner released a video wherein he reiterated his argument Obama was acting like an “emperor” by taking executive action rather than working with Congress on immigration reform.
Following the president’s address Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), who has suggested Republicans should use the funding bill to block Obama’s plan, issued a statement outlining his vision for this strategy.
“The President’s unconstitutional action is a direct threat to our Republican system of government and will have catastrophic consequences for the American people. It must be stopped. And the way to stop it is by using Congress’ power of the purse,” said Sessions. “The House should send the Senate a government funding bill which ensures no funds can be spent for this unlawful purpose. If [Democratic Majority Leader Harry] Reid’s Senate Democrats vote to surrender their own institution to an imperial dictate and block the measure, then the House should send a short-term funding measure so the new GOP majority can be sworn in and pass a funding bill with the needed language.”
Short-term funding bills would extend the Dec. 11 deadline while keeping the threat of a shutdown alive. Republicans could theoretically use this as leverage to extract modifications to Obama’s proposal or the Senate immigration reform bill. However, Democrats might assume voters would blame Republicans for any eventual shutdown and refuse to bend in the face of these threats.
In his speech, Obama broke his executive action down into three parts. Firstly, he said it would provide “additional resources” for border security to “stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.” Secondly, he said it would “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy.” Lastly, Obama said it would “take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.”
Obama elaborated on this third point and attempted to address his critics. He stressed that those who “broke our immigration laws” still “must be held accountable” and said this would allow the government to better focus resources on deporting “dangerous” undocumented immigrants who are “actual threats to our security.” Obama said his plan would allow qualified people who have been here over five years, pass criminal background checks, and pay their “fair share” of taxes to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
The president noted opponents of immigration reform describe it as “amnesty.” He argued the “real amnesty” would be continuing the current “broken system.” Obama also claimed it would not be feasible to deport all of the undocumented immigrants living in the country.
“Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability — a common-sense, middle-ground approach,” said Obama. “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. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
According to the Washington Post, the president’s executive action will affect about 3.7 million undocumented immigrants.
Following Obama’s speech, Boehner, the Republican House speaker, issued a statement where he suggested the president was acting unconstitutionally and the GOP has a “duty” to respond.
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left. His ‘my way or the highway’ approach makes it harder to build the trust with the American people that is necessary to get things done on behalf of the country,” said Boehner. “Republicans are left with the serious responsibility of upholding our oath of office. We will not shrink from this duty, because our allegiance lies with the American people. We will listen to them, work with our members, and protect the Constitution.”
In his speech, the president stressed he ultimately wants a “more permanent legislative solution.” He also offered a simple solution to Republican critics of his executive action.
“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 also discouraged the GOP from pushing for a shutdown in response to his decision to use executive power.
“Don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this,” said Obama. “Americans are tired of gridlock. What our country needs from us right now is a common purpose — a higher purpose.”
After outlining the details of his plan and addressing his opponents, Obama praised many of the country’s immigrants as hard workers who make a vital contribution to the society.
“Over the past few years, I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government, and at risk any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids. I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers,” Obama said, adding, “These people — – our neighbours, our classmates, our friends — – they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America’s success.”
He concluded by saying his proposal is in line with the American “ideal.”
“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — – we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants,” said Obama. “What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”
This post was updated continuously throughout the president’s speech. It was last updated at 9:41 p.m.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.