Washington: President Barack Obama planned on Thursday to impose the most sweeping immigration reform in a generation, easing the threat of deportation for about 4.7 million undocumented immigrants and setting up a clash with outraged Republicans.
In excerpts ahead of his 8 p.m. (0100 GMT Friday) speech, Obama rejected Republican critics who say his actions are tantamount to amnesty for illegal immigrants and urged them to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
The real amnesty, he said, was "leaving this broken system the way it is."
"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," he said.
Republicans pounced quickly, charging Obama had overstepped his constitutional power a year after declaring he did not have the authority to act on his own.
In a video released before Obama`s televised speech, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said: The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he sure is acting like one."
With 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Obama`s plan would let some 4.4 million who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents remain in the United States temporarily, without the threat of deportation.
Those undocumented residents could apply legally for jobs and join American society, but not vote or qualify for insurance under the president`s signature healthcare law. The measure would apply to those who have been in the United States for at last five years.
An additional 270,000 people would be eligible for relief under the expansion of a 2012 move by Obama to stop deporting people brought illegally to the United States as children by their parents.
`PASS A BILL`
Drawing a line of defense against expected Republican challenges, Obama argued his actions were not only lawful but the kinds of steps taken by presidents for the past half century, both Republican and Democratic.
"And 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`s Democratic allies rallied behind him. "We`ve got his back," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Senior administration officials said Obama would shift law enforcement resources from the interior of the country to the U.S. border and that recent border crossers would be sent back. Deportation efforts would focus largely on gang members and violent criminals, instead of families.
"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."
Administration officials described Obama`s actions as the biggest shift in immigration policy since 1986 changes by President Ronald Reagan.
Some Democratic lawmakers were dismayed, preferring Obama to wait and work with Congress on immigration legislation.
"I have to be honest, how this is coming about makes me uncomfortable," said Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
Legal experts were divided on whether Obama was overstepping his authority.
University of California law professor John Yoo, who worked in the administration of former President George W. Bush, said: "That is an exercise of executive power that even the most stalwart defenders of an energetic executive, not to mention the (U.S. Constitution`s) framers, cannot support."
Kari Hong, a professor at Boston College Law School, countered, saying: "Legally, Obama is on exceedingly strong footing in terms of the legal and constitutional authority and past practices."
Obama will travel to Las Vegas on Friday to showcase the plan in a state with the highest proportion of undocumented residents in the country.
Republican governors meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, said they would discuss the possibility of suing Obama to stop his actions. Potential presidential candidates Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Perry of Texas have both expressed support for legal action.
Even with a more muscular Republican Party next year that will control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was unclear how it would try to undo Obama`s initiative or if it would have the clout.
Republicans have discussed using some must-pass spending bills to hamstring Obama, but they have been running into political and technical roadblocks with many of their ideas.
The result could be two years of sniping at Obama`s initiative without actually changing it, similar to the past four years of Republican attempts to repeal the healthcare law, known as Obamacare, that became law in 2010.