President Barack Obama (AP)
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WASHINGTON (AP) – Spurning furious Republicans, President Barack Obama unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration last night to spare nearly five million people in the United States illegally from deportation and refocus enforcement efforts on “felons, not families”.
The moves, affecting mostly parents and young people, marked the most sweeping changes to the nation’s fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades and set off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers.
In a televised address to the nation, Obama defended the legality of his actions and challenged GOP lawmakers to focus their energy not on blocking his measures but on approving long-stalled legislation to take their place.
“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,” Obama said, flexing his presidential powers just two weeks after his political standing was challenged in the midterm elections.
As Obama spoke from the White House, immigration supporters with American flags draped over their shoulders marched on Pennsylvania Avenue outside carrying signs that read, “Gracias, Presidente Obama”.
The address marked the first step in the White House effort to promote the executive actions to the public. Today, Obama will speak at a campaign-style rally in Las Vegas.
The main beneficiaries of the president’s actions are immigrants who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. After passing background checks and paying fees, those individuals will soon be able to seek relief from deportation and get work permits. The administration expects about 4.1 million people to qualify.
Obama is also broadening his 2012 directive that deferred deportation for some young immigrants who entered the country illegally. Obama will expand eligibility to people who arrived in the U.S. as minors before 2010, instead of the current cutoff of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31. The expansion is expected to affect about 300 000 people.
Applications for the new deportation deferrals will begin in the spring. Those who qualify would be granted deferrals for three years at a time.
Immigration-rights activists gathered at watch parties around the country to listen to the president announce actions they have sought for years.