Thousands of immigrants in Maryland who are living in the country illegally could be shielded from deportation under an executive order President Barack Obama is set to unveil Thursday, an effort that has drawn sharp condemnation from congressional Republicans.
Nationwide, the measure could affect as many as 5 million people, including those who are the parents of U.S. citizens. The exact number will vary depending on last-minute adjustments to the plan, which was described by an administration official and two outside advocates briefed on deliberations.
"If that happens, it will mean a better future for us," said Yesenia Mejia, a Baltimore resident who came to the country illegally from Mexico more than a decade ago and who now has a U.S.-born son. "We are part of this country. I love and respect this country."
The announcement, which Obama will formally make in a speech Thursday night, follows months of back-and-forth between the White House, reform advocates and members of Congress about how to address an estimated 11 million people who live in the U.S. without paying taxes or working legally. Washington has stalled in its effort to rewrite immigration laws — a system that both parties say is broken.
"Unfortunately, Washington has allowed the problems to fester for too long," Obama said in a video posted Wednesday on Facebook. "So, what I'm going to be laying out is some things I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system work better."
For months, Obama has said he was holding off taking executive action in the hopes that the Republican-led House would follow the Democratic-led Senate and pass a bipartisan overhaul to the system. He delayed again during the fall campaign season to take pressure off Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.
The administration refused to release specifics of the plan Wednesday, but the effort has already riled critics who question whether Obama is overstepping his executive authority by ordering changes that could directly affect millions of people.
"My parents fled communism and legally immigrated to the United States because they believed the United States was a nation governed by laws," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's sole Republican in Washington. "The president's potential illegal actions threaten the fundamental belief of Americans in the rule of law."
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner referred to the president as "Emperor Obama" in a statement accusing him of a "legacy of lawlessness," a jab at Obama's own comment nearly two years ago when he discussed the restraints on his power.
While the number of unauthorized immigrants nationally has held steady since 2009, Maryland and six other states have seen increases, according to a Pew Research Center study released this week. The number of immigrants in Maryland grew by about 25,000 to roughly 250,000 in 2012, according to the report.
The group estimates that about 5.7 percent of elementary and secondary school students in Maryland have at least one unauthorized parent.
Obama met with Democratic congressional leaders, including Rep. Steny Hoyer, at the White House Wednesday night to discuss the plan. The Southern Maryland lawmaker could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Mejia said the executive order, if it removes the fear of deportation, would allow her to take her 5-year-old son back to Mexico to meet family for the first time. She also said it might allow her to obtain a better-paying job.
"I would feel more secure," said Mejia, 31. "I will be able to give my son a better future, too."
But others would not be entitled to relief.
Angel Chimborazo, who came to the country 14 years ago from Ecuador, has raised three children in Maryland, but none of them were born here. Chimborazo, who is 48, said he didn't blame Obama for having to draw the line somewhere.
"The president really cannot do more without Congress," Chimborazo said through a translator. "I'm asking that all of the congressmen and the White House not forget about the millions of immigrants who are not going to qualify."
Advisers to Obama argued he isn't overstepping the bounds of his executive authority. Every president since Eisenhower has used the power of the executive branch to tweak U.S. immigration policy, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Obama's move, he said, will be "consistent with actions taken by presidents of both parties to deal with the immigration system."
Under the plan, the White House would halt the deportation of millions of parents of both U.S. citizens and long-term permanent residents, according to those briefed on the plan.
That program, to be rolled out in phases over its first year in order to prevent a crush of applications, would allow immigrants who qualify to pay a fee and submit to a background check and be given a temporary reprieve from deportation.
The number of people eligible will depend on residency requirements. If the guidelines call for five years of living in the U.S., 3.3 million people could be eligible to be protected from deportation. If the requirement is set more strictly, at 10 years, 2.5 million would be eligible.
A small but significant option that was taken off the table was a change to policy that would have protected parents of children who received work permits through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Such a change was seen as too difficult to defend legally and politically.
Keeping out that group of parents could reduce the number of people eligible for assistance by about 100,000, according to figures from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
"We were disappointed with that," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, an advocacy group ."All of us are very clear this is a step in the right direction, what the president is doing. We celebrate that. But that is not enough. We're going to keep fighting."
Obama created the DACA program two years ago, allowing more than 680,000 people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to be protected from deportation for two years. They can seek extensions.
Another possible modification Obama may announce, a change to the DACA program's age limit, could affect hundreds of thousands more people in the country illegally.
"It will be a mixed-emotions day," said Lorella Praeli, a policy director for United We Dream, an advocacy organization that pushes for protections for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children and their families.
Praeli was born in Peru and grew up in Connecticut after her mother brought her to the U.S. on a tourist visa to get Praeli treatment for her amputated leg. The family overstayed the visas. Though Praeli was eventually sponsored for lawful permanent residency, her mother is still in the country illegally.
Obama's new policy could allow her mother to apply for a work permit and to put off deportation, Praeli said.
"I also feel very happy, and I feel very sad at the same time," Praeli said.
Obama is also expected to allow several hundred thousand spouses of U.S. citizens to more easily apply for waivers to a policy that would keep them out of the country and away from their family members before they could get legal status to stay in the U.S.
Obama's plan may make it easier for foreigners on a work visa to apply for long-term permanent residency. Workers from other countries could be allowed to apply for a green card and work in the U.S. while their application is being reviewed.
Separately, the Department of Homeland Security has revamped instructions to immigration officers that boost the number of people considered low priorities for deportation. This could protect another 200,000 to half a million people from being deported over the next 10 years. In addition, officials have proposed limits on when federal agents can ask for local jails to detain someone for immigration violations.
Even with the executive order ready to go, one White House official said, the president is still ready to tear it up if Congress will take action.
Democrats didn't seem to be holding out hope.
"If the House votes on our bipartisan bill, the discussion about executive action would be made moot," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and one of the authors of the Senate bill. "It is the other body of Congress that has led us to the point we're at today."