Obama: 'Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it'

President Barack Obama announced his immigration reform plans to the country on Thursday.

This plan, which will be enacted by executive action, "will help secure the border, hold nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants accountable, and ensure that everyone plays by the same rules," the White House said in a press release. Obama announced the actions on immigration in an address from the White House. He is expected to sign the actions at a rally in Las Vegas on Friday.

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"Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it," he said, later adding that his critics call the plan a form of amnesty.

"Well, it's not." Obama said. "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today—millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time."

A group of legal and undocumented immigrants watch U.S. President Barack Obama speaking about the country's immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, on a screen in New Brunswick, New Jersey, November 20, 2014.
Eduardo Munoz | Reuters
A group of legal and undocumented immigrants watch U.S. President Barack Obama speaking about the country's immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, on a screen in New Brunswick, New Jersey, November 20, 2014.

Obama emphasized in his address that he is instead pushing for the accountability of undocumented immigrants.

"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 commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," the president said. "If you're a criminal, you'll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up."

The three main elements of the actions will be cracking down on illegal immigration at the border; deporting felons, but not families; and establishing criminal background checks and taxes for undocumented immigrants.

"By registering and passing criminal and national security background checks, millions of undocumented immigrants will start paying their fair share of taxes and temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation for three years at a time," the White House release said.

If undocumented immigrants submit to these background checks, register with the government, pay fees and show they have a child born in the U.S., then they "will have the opportunity to request temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for three years at a time."

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These reforms will actually make it more difficult to enter the country without documentation, Obama said, but some did not agree. Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a statement that Obama's "decision tonight will lead to more illegal immigration, not less."

Obama addressed critics of the plan, explaining that "tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn't realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn't being straight with you."

"By providing individuals with an opportunity to come out of the shadows and work legally, we will also help crack down on companies who hired undocumented workers, which undermines the wages of all workers, and ensure that individuals are playing by the rules and paying their fair share of taxes," the release said.

The president's executive actions will also expand the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The rule currently offers temporary relief from deportation to children who had been in the country for at least five years and meet certain criteria. Now, anyone who came to the U.S. as a child can apply if they entered before Jan. 1, 2010—no matter how old they are now. The White House also said that DACA relief will be granted for three years in the country going forward.

Obama's reforms will also cover a wide swath of issues related to immigration such as shifting more resources to the border, streamlining the immigration court process, and implementing a new Priority Enforcement Program that removes criminals. Additionally, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson will issue a memorandum making "clear that the government's enforcement activity should be focused on national security threats, serious criminals, and recent border crossers," as opposed to families.

Still, some politicians said that Obama's plan is not dealing sufficiently with undocumented entry into the country. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement that "the right way to do it is to first bring illegal immigration under control by securing the borders and enforcing the laws, then modernizing our legal immigration system."

In his address, Obama cited scripture's call "that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger."

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While the reforms are sure to be praised by those attending the Friday rally in Las Vegas, many across the country are less favorable of a unilateral decision on the matter.

A new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that just 38 percent of Americans support executive action by the president on immigration without Congressional approval.

"We've always believed it should be done by Congressional action—it's more of a consensus way to do it," said Russell Boening, a dairy farmer based south of San Antonio who has lobbied Washington for immigration reform for years as the state director for the Texas Farm Bureau. "That's the right way to do it."

Immigration: Obama vs. GOP
Immigration: Obama vs. GOP   

Despite the absence of any apparent forthcoming congressional agreement on immigration, Boening insisted that this path is the only way to achieve lasting comprehensive reform—his industry group is seeking a better guest worker program to help legally fill its labor shortages.

"It's been very frustrating to see nothing get done," he said. "But we still live in the greatest country in the world, and I don't lose hope: I get disappointed along the way, but somewhere along the lines common sense will prevail."

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South Dakota Sen. John Thune told CNBC on Thursday morning that executive action would be a "big mistake," as it would anger the GOP.

Some, however, are opposed to executive action on immigration because they see it as overstepping Obama's executive authority. In fact, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn told USA Today that "the country's going to go nuts" in response to Thursday's announcement.

"The actions I'm taking are not only lawful, they're the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every Democratic President for the past half century," Obama said. "And 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."

House Speaker John Boehner said the president is acting like an emperor or a king in a YouTube video ahead of the speech. Even the some in Obama's own party are taking issue with the executive actions.

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Saying he disagrees with the president's decision, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said "the American people made it clear on election night that they want government to work better for them and to solve real problems that impact their lives."

Obama said Thursday that he had tried to work with Congress, and blamed the House of Representatives for a bipartisan Senate bill never seeing a yes-no vote. Still, the president said, he still hopes to eventually "pass that kind of common sense law."

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed by the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll said they favored the government creating a way for people in the U.S. illegally to eventually become citizens.

The president's actions will also cover several other facets of immigration and naturalization, including "enhancing options for foreign entrepreneurs" and "streamlining the process for foreign workers and their employers."