Barack Obama will ‘never give up’ on immigration reform

President affirms commitment to measures for illegal workers in Las Vegas speech

President Barack Obama announces the executive action he plans to take to overhaul the United States' immigration system. Video: Reuters

 

United States president Barack Obama has tonight pledged to “never give up” until immigration reform is a reality for the nearly five million people living in the US illegally.

He said during a speech tonight in Las Vegas that the not everybody will qualify under his new measure, and that therefore it was “just a first step”.

Mr Obama’s proposed temporary measures would allow millions of illegal immigrants, including, it is estimated, thousands of Irish, to live and work in the US without the risk of being deported.

The proposals includes a relaxation of restrictions allowing qualifying Irish immigrants to travel between the US and Ireland, ending – for some – years of missing important family occasions.

In the face of strong opposition from Republicans in Congress, Mr Obama is bypassing his political opponents with executive actions, lifting the threat of deportation for about five million illegal immigrants.

His administration will begin accepting applications this spring from undocumented migrants who are seeking to avoid deportation.

Mr Obama outlined the actions in a televised address, describing them as “accountability – a commonsense, middle ground approach.”

“If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported,” he said in a 15-minute primetime speech from the East Room of the White House.

Presidents, as head of the executive branch of government, can issue orders on policy matters if Congress doesn’t support them.

In the absence of legislation, Mr Obama said that he would direct immigration enforcement agents to focus on deporting “felons, not families; criminals, not children” and overlook the illegal status of just over four million immigrants who are parents to US-born citizen children or legal permanent residents.

Background checks

Attempting to reassure critics that his orders would attract more illegal migrants into the US, the president said that his administration would increase resources at the border with Mexico to “stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.”

“If you plan to enter the US illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up,” he said.

He rejected Republican accusations that he was exceeding his authority as president, saying that these were the “kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every single Democratic president for the past half century.”

To those politicians calling on those who question the wisdom of him acting where Congress has failed, he said: “Pass a Bill.”

He dismissed suggestions from members of Congress that his actions for undocumented migrants amounted to an amnesty.

“That’s the real amnesty – leaving this broken system the way it is,” he said. “Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character.”

Under Mr Obama’s measures, his administration will expand eligibility for “extreme hardship waivers” allowing qualifying illegal immigrants to visit their home countries through their US-born children or legally resident spouses.

Waivers to three- and 10-year bars – restrictions that currently stop illegal immigrants re-entering the US if they have outstayed an earlier visa period – will be expanded, a senior administration official said.

“We expect to see some expansion of who benefits from the waiver of the three- and 10-year bar,” said one senior administration official.

Irish immigration activists welcomed the president’s actions.

“This will have a big effect on our community,” said Ciaran Staunton, the New York-based co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. “Many people will sigh with relief because not only could they not work here legally but they couldn’t travel. For anyone who meets both areas this will indeed be a huge day.”

He expressed disappointment that undocumented Irish who have been living in the US for more than five years who don’t or couldn’t have children will not be helped under these measures.

“We hope that the White House will address this oversight immediately,” he said.

Irish beneficiaries

The measures will allow him to return home for the first time in 14 years with a waiver from a 10-year bar for outstaying a temporary visa.

“As soon as they lift the bar I can apply,” he said. “All I want to do is see my parents and be together for one Christmas or one summer holiday. If you can get that, you can go home in the morning.”

Among the other measures that the administration will introduce is an initiative that will allow science and technology graduates of American universities to remain permanently in the US after their education.

Entrepreneurs will also be able to become legally resident in the US if they can demonstrate they have investors and can create jobs.