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Obama makes his case for immigration action

Years after vowing to make immigration a centerpiece of his administration, President Barack Obama outlined a sweeping set of polices Thursday that would shield millions of people who are living illegally in the country from deportation — a controversial move that could redefine his remaining two years in office.

Without a vote from Congress, Obama set in motion an effort that could temporarily protect more than 5 million immigrants from deportation and give them the ability not only to come out of the shadows but also to work in the country legally.

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"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?" the president asked in a White House address. "Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?"

In the most consequential change, Obama would allow an estimated 4 million parents of U.S. citizens or long-term permanent residents to apply for work permits and three years of protection from immigration enforcement. Applicants would have to prove they have been in the country at least five years.

In Maryland, about 55,000 parents could benefit from that program, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

Armando Tema, who came to Baltimore from Guatemala eight years ago, is one of those who could qualify. The pizzeria employee said he hoped a work permit would allow him to get a better job — and better provide for his wife and 8-month-old, U.S.-born son.

"It's good news not only for me, but for him, for my whole family," said Tema, who turned 37 on Thursday. "Our lives are changed with this action by the president."

The moves follow a months-long battle between the White House and Republican lawmakers who accuse Obama of a power grab. Advocates for immigrants have pressed the president to address the estimated 11 million foreigners who are living in the United States illegally after the failure of Congress to act.

Republicans said the president does not have the authority to act unilaterally — regardless of his frustration with the gridlock — and several said the action could hamper efforts to find compromise in other areas. The announcement has already cast doubt on Washington's ability to avoid a government shutdown next month.

In his address, the president asserted repeatedly that his administration has the authority to make the changes.

"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," he 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."

Most congressional Democrats stood behind the president's effort on Thursday. Many laid the blame with House Republican leaders, who have denied a vote on an immigration bill approved by the Senate last year. Fourteen Republican senators voted for that measure — though many have since come under fire from conservative voters.

"There's no question that Congress needs to act," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview. "It's difficult to understand why the House would not have taken this up."

Republicans said Obama's actions contradicted his previous statements, in which he indicated he did not have the authority to act as broadly as advocates wanted.

"By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement after the address. "His 'my way or the highway' approach makes it harder to build the trust with the American people that is necessary to get things done on behalf of the country."

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's sole Republican in Congress and a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said he did not know yet how the GOP might respond when it takes control of the Senate next year.

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Harris praised a few elements of Obama's plan, such as streamlining the visa process for some high-tech workers, but he called much of it "above the law."

"Lawless behavior is usually addressed through a lawsuit, and the president knows that will take years," he said. "It looks like he's going to have his way for a while."

Estimates of the number of people in the country illegally have remained steady since 2009, but there has been significant growth in Maryland and six other states, the Pew Research Center reported this week. The number of immigrants in Maryland grew by 25,000 to roughly 250,000 in 2012, the nonpartisan center found.

Obama would defer immigration enforcement actions against the parents of children who are in the country legally — such as those born in the U.S. — as long as those parents had lived in the United States for five years, passed a background check and paid a fee.

Another 270,000 immigrants could avoid deportation under an expansion of the "deferred action for childhood arrivals," or DACA, a program Obama implemented in 2012. Previously, immigrants under 16 who arrived in the U.S. before 2007 were eligible for relief. He would extend the arrival deadline to 2010.

He would also expand the length of relief from two years to three.

Pew estimates that about 5.7 percent of elementary and secondary school students in Maryland have at least one unauthorized parent — and the organization found that the majority of those students nationwide are citizens.

Jose Pina and Lucianna Mendoza joined a group of about 20 immigrants and supporters who ate pizza and crammed into chairs in front of a projector screen at CASA de Maryland in Baltimore to watch Obama's speech. Several held signs saying "U.S. needs strong families" and "Gracias Presidente Obama" and others waved American flags.

Pina, 33, works as a landscaper. Mendoza, 42, said she worked for Jos. A. Bank in Hampstead and a game manufacturing company — before losing both jobs because she didn't have documents.

Mendoza said her 20-year-old daughter graduated from high school but was unable to get into college because she was undocumented.

"I'm here because I'm in a fight," Mendoza said, with Pina translating. "Yes, I want a worker's permit, but I'm going to keep fighting for immigration reform."

Obama also plans to change a federal program called Secure Communities that has proved particularly controversial among immigrants and their advocates in Maryland. The program is intended to help authorities identify and deport immigrants who are committing crimes, but a Baltimore Sun analysis this year found that more than 40 percent of the immigrants who have been removed from the state under the program had no prior criminal record. That's far higher than the national average.

A White House official said the administration is intent on "reworking and replacing" Secure Communities, but exactly what that means is not clear. The administration will no longer request that county jails detain immigrants who have been arrested unless those immigrants are convicted of a crime or are considered an "enforcement priority" by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But advocates say immigration agents have long used "enforcement priority" as a catchall to include people without criminal records. And local jurisdictions — including some of the largest in Maryland — have already decided to limit their response to federal detainer requests after several federal courts have raised questions about their constitutionality.

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The Department of Homeland Security unveiled new guidelines Thursday that will place the agency's enforcement focus on national security threats, serious criminals and recent border crossers. The administration has made similar recommendations before.

"The way the new program is implemented ... could severely detract from the meaningfulness of the reform," said Sirine Shebaya, an attorney at the ACLU of Maryland who has studied the issue closely. "As always the devil here is going to be in the details."

Tribune's Washington bureau contributed to this article.

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President Barack Obama on Thursday outlined sweeping changes to immigration policy, including:

•Immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five years, have a child who is legal, pass a background check and pay a fee can avoid deportation and receive work papers for three years;

Immigrants under the age of 16 who were brought to the country before Jan. 1, 2010 can avoid deportation. The provision expands an earlier executive order that applied to children brought to the country before June 15, 2007;

Replaces controversial Secure Communities program with the Priority Enforcement Program, which will focus on deporting immigrants convicted of criminal offenses;

Streamlines the visa application process for foreign students studying science and technology in the U.S.

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