Shielding some 5 million people from the threat of deportation is not “shelter” or “amnesty,” President Obama emphasized on Thursday evening during a speech outlining the most far-reaching immigration executive actions of his presidency so far. Instead, he called it “accountability,” offering relief to undocumented immigrants in the form of a deal: If you agree to play by the rules, we’ll agree not to deport you.
Obama spent the bulk of his 10-minute speech addressing the most politically provocative aspect of his executive action on immigration: deportation relief for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens who have been in the country for at least five years, can pass a criminal background check and are willing to pay taxes. While he acknowledged the move as one borne of compassion for immigrants -- “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger; we were strangers once too,” he said -- Obama largely painted the decision as a pragmatic one.
“Let’s be honest: Tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you,” he said.
The deal, Obama said, was also about fairness. “Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability -- a commonsense, middle ground approach.”
While deportation relief -- largely modeled after the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program -- could potentially affect nearly half the nation’s unauthorized population, it will still fall short of the hopes of many other immigrants. Lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual rights groups pushed for much broader requirements for relief earlier this summer, saying that undocumented LGBT immigrants are less likely to be able to prove formal family ties. Parents of those who arrived in the U.S. as children and received protection under DACA also will not qualify for relief, and migrant farmworkers also appeared to be excluded from the plans. Moreover, while the plan will remove the threat of deportation for immigrants, it will not provide health care options or qualify them for financial aid for college.
The president’s speech only lightly referenced some of the other major measures that will be included in executive action, including an effort to focus immigration enforcement on serious criminals. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
The Obama administration has deported more than 2 million undocumented immigrants during his time in office -- more than any other president, according to a Pew study.
According to a White House fact sheet circulated on Thursday, that focus on criminals will come in the form of a revamp of the controversial Secure Communities federal program, which will soon be replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program. While it’s unclear how it will differ from Secure Communities, the move comes after more than 250 jurisdictions nationwide passed laws limiting their cooperation with federal immigration authorities over complaints that Secure Communities has disintegrated trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement.
Obama also only briefly touched on executive orders to streamline legal immigration processes for high-skilled workers. That will come in the form of a batch of measures that will expand existing visa programs for science and engineering students and foreign entrepreneurs, as well as streamline application processes for H1-B and L-1 visa holders.
Meanwhile, as the speech kicked off what will likely be an explosive fight with Republicans in Congress, Obama also reiterated his challenge to lawmakers who have railed against 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.”