WASHINGTON (AFP) – Pledging to fix America’s “broken” immigration system, President Barack Obama offered five million undocumented migrants protection from deportation Thursday, allowing families to emerge from the shadows and seek work permits.
In a move that infuriated his Republican critics and drew unspecified pledges to counter it, Obama said nearly all undocumented people living in the country for more than five years and who have a child who is a US citizen or legal permanent resident can apply for a three-year work authorisation.
The president also broadened the programme he launched in 2012 that provides temporary residency to young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16.
“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,” Obama said in a 15-minute speech broadcast from the White House.
The order will affect about 44 per cent of the 11.3 million people – mostly from Mexico and Central America – living in the United States illegally and doing menial jobs that most Americans snub.
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” he asked.
But he quickly stressed that the sweeping order, the most comprehensive immigration step in years, “does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive.
“Only Congress can do that,” he added. “All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”
Obama’s executive order shifts US policy from a dragnet approach to all illegal immigrants to a focus on deporting convicted felons and those who pose a danger to society.
People living and working illegally in the country and who meet the criteria can apply for deferred deportation from next spring, the White House said.
For much of this year, Republicans have warned that unilateral action on immigration would be an illegal and unconstitutional amnesty of millions of undocumented people.
But Obama shot back, saying he was taking needed action while congressional Republicans dithered.
“Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character,” Obama said.
The president invoked the centuries-old history of America as a compassionate nation of immigrants and described his plan as “commonsense” accountability.
But in his words lay a warning, and a message to lawmakers that he would stand tough on immigration law.