Obama urges Republicans not to let immigration reform be dealbreaker for other issues

US President Barack Obama said he hoped to still work with Republicans in Congress on other issues. Republican leadership had threatened everything from impeachment to forcing a government shutdown if the President decided to act alone on immigration
US President Barack Obama said he hoped to still work with Republicans in Congress on other issues. Republican leadership had threatened everything from impeachment to forcing a government shutdown if the President decided to act alone on immigration reform. -- PHOTO: AFP

US President Barack Obama said he hoped to still work with Republicans in Congress on other issues even as he defied their demands by announcing a slew of executive actions on immigration reform.

Speaking during a 15-minute televised address on Thursday night, he urged Republicans to not let a disagreement on a single issue be a dealbreaker for everything else.

"That's not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn't shut down our government again just because we disagree on this.  Americans are tired of gridlock. "

Republican leadership had threatened everything from impeachment to forcing a government shutdown if the President decided to act alone on immigration reform.

As expected, he announced moves to strengthen border protection and make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to work in the country. He also removed the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.

In addition, he broadened a programme giving temporary residency to young undocumented immigrants and shifted the enforcement approach to focus on deporting convicted felons.

He refuted the charge from critics that offering work permits to illegal immigrants would amount to giving amnesty to law breakers. He said that amnesty would be to do nothing.

"That's the real amnesty- 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: 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. If you plan to enter the US illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up," he said.

The announcement - which confirmed much of the speculation in the past week - has been at the centre of intense politicking from both Democrats and Republicans in recent days.

Both sides continue to put their own spin on the issue in the hours leading up to the President's speech.

Democratic party leadership - which had initially proposed delaying executive action until a budget was passed - closed ranks around Mr Obama, framing the issue as one involving morality and family values. They argued that some immigrant families - where not every member is an American citizen - live in constant fear that one of them would get arrested and deported.

They also stressed that Democrats had already been very patient with Republicans, citing a 2013 comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Democrat-controlled Senate but got stuck in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Said top ranking Senate Democrat Harry Reid: "We can't sit idly by waiting for Republicans to act while homes are being broken all across this nation. We waited 511 days. All the House would have to do is take up the bill and it would pass. it would pass overwhelmingly. Firstly, every Democrat would vote for it and many Republicans would vote for it. Republicans keep saying, give us more time, give us more time. 511 days is enough time."

"We told the president, we've got his back," he added.

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to warn that unilateral action from Mr Obama ruin chances for both sides to work together in the new Congress. Many Republicans oppose both the decision by the president to act alone as well as the way he is tackling the issue.

Many want border security to be the top priority and also demand that illegal immigrants be deported rather than given work permits.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader, took to the floor of Congress earlier on Thursday to issue a final warning to the president.

"He needs to understand something. If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act. We're considering a variety of options. But make no mistake. When the newly elected representatives of the people take their seats, they will act," he said.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg