WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is poised to level broad authority to grant work permits to millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States and to protect them from deportation, but the plan would leave the fate of millions more still unresolved. Republicans vowed an all-out fight against it.
“Congress will act,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned on the Senate floor Thursday, hours before Obama’s 8 p.m. EST address sidestepping Congress on this volatile issue.
“We’re considering a variety of options,” McConnell told Senate colleagues. “But make no mistake. When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act.”
PBS NewsHour will live stream the president’s prime time address Thursday. Watch it in the player above.
Obama’s measures could make as many as 5 million people eligible for work permits, with the broadest action likely aimed at extending deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as long as those parents have been in the country for five years.
Other potential winners under Obama’s actions would be young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children but do not now qualify under a 2012 directive from the president that’s expected to be expanded.
Changes also are expected to law enforcement programs and business visas. But with more than 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, Obama’s actions would not affect millions of other illegal immigrants, although their chances of getting deported if they have not committed a crime are low.
“What I’m going to be laying out is the things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system better, even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem,” Obama said in a video posted Wednesday on Facebook.
But the vehement reaction of Republicans, who will have complete control of Congress come January, made clear that Obama was courting what could be one of the most pitched partisan confrontations of his presidency.
How Republicans will respond remained uncertain, and the party was divided. But a major battle on Capitol Hill looked inevitable.
Some on the right pushed for using must-pass spending legislation to try to shut-down Obama’s move. One lawmaker — two-term Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama — raised the specter of impeachment.
Party leaders warned against such talk and sought to avoid spending-bill tactics that could lead to a government shutdown. They said such moves could backfire, alienating Hispanic voters and others.
In a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans, McConnell urged restraint. Still, there were concerns among some Republicans that the potential 2016 presidential candidates in the Senate would use the announcement to elevate their standing, challenging Obama directly.
And as far-reaching as Obama’s steps would be, they fall far short of what a comprehensive immigration overhaul passed by the Senate last year would have accomplished. The House never voted on that legislation. It would have set tougher border security standards, increased caps for visas for foreign high-skilled workers and allowed the 11 million immigrants illegally in the country to obtain work permits and begin a 10-year path toward a green card and, ultimately, citizenship.
“This is not the way we want to proceed. It will not solve the problem permanently,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri acknowledged Thursday on MSNBC.
None of those affected by Obama’s actions would have a path to citizenship, and the actions could be reversed by a new president after Obama leaves office. Moreover, officials said the eligible immigrants would not be entitled to federal benefits — including health care tax credits — under Obama’s plan.
Some immigrant advocates worried that even though Obama’s actions would make millions eligible for work permits, not all would participate out of fear that Republicans or a new president would reverse Obama’s actions.
“If the reaction to this is that the Republicans are going to do everything they can to tear this apart, to make it unworkable, the big interesting question will be, will our folks sign up knowing that there is this cloud hanging over it,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.
Still, Democrats battered by election losses two weeks ago welcomed Obama’s steps.
“The last two weeks haven’t been great weeks for us,” said Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, one of 18 congressional Democrats who had dinner Wednesday night with Obama. “The president is about to change that.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Donna Cassata and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.