ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Pres. Obama delivers a primetime address tonight from the White House. He’ll lay out the unilateral actions that he’s taking to make temporary changes in the nation’s immigration system. NPR’s Mara Liasson is at the White House today. And, Mara, what do you know about what the president will unveil tonight?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president is going to announce a series of steps that will allow as many as 5 million people to stay in the country and possibly get temporary work authorization through expanding the definition of the DREAMers – kids brought here illegally as children by their parents. Currently, you’re eligible if you entered before June 2007 and were born after 1981. Now there will be no age limit, but you have to have entered by January 2010, and you have to have been brought here when you were 16 or under. He’ll also offered deportation relief to parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residence, beefed-up border security, and he’ll prioritize deportations to focus on gang members, felons, terrorists. Way down the list will be illegal immigrants with a broken tail light, for instance. So even if you can’t qualify for a work permit, you’re less likely that you’ll be subject to deportation if you haven’t committed a serious crime.
SIEGEL: So if someone was born in 1975 and brought here at the age of 15 in 1990, under the present terms, they wouldn’t be eligible as DREAMers, but under these new terms, they would be.
LIASSON: That is exactly right.
SIEGEL: Mara, does the White House think that the president is on strong legal ground doing this?
LIASSON: Yes, and they point to other presidents since Eisenhower, including Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, who’ve issued similar orders offering relief to similar percentages of the undocumented population. The White House says, they did reject some measures they felt they didn’t have strong legal justification for, such as the parents of DREAMers – people who brought their children here illegally. And they said that he couldn’t issue green cards. He couldn’t offer a path to citizenship. And even for people who will qualify for his new deportation relief, they will not be able to get Obamacare subsidies.
SIEGEL: Of course, the same percentage of the undocumented population is a much larger number of people because the undocumented population is so much bigger these days. What are Republicans likely to do in response to all of this?
LIASSON: Well, they’re looking at a lot of options. They’d like to defund this, but the agency that processes applications – the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services – is self-funded by immigration application fees, so it doesn’t depend on the appropriations process. Still, today on the Senate floor, the incoming majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that the president would regret doing this and that the Congress is considering a lot of options.
SIEGEL: Now, what about the idea that the president could have waited a few months to give Congress one more chance to act on legislation?
LIASSON: Well, many Democrats and, even for a brief moment, the president’s old political advisor David Axelrod suggested that in order to give the White House the ability to claim more moral high ground, not look like he was acting imperiously. But the White House had boxed itself in. The president promised to do this before the election, then he changed his mind and said, he’d do it by the end of the year. And he needed to get back in the game, show he was still relevant, show disappointed Latino voters that he’s acting, that he’s fighting for them. And don’t forget – after the last time he lost a house of Congress in 2010, he did move to the center. He did try to compromise with the Republicans. And he worked for years to get a big budget deal, and that didn’t work out.
SIEGEL: Let’s talk about coverage of the speech. The broadcast television networks are not taking it live.
LIASSON: They’re not. They saw this as a political speech. They’ve decided to air “Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Biggest Loser” instead. But one very, very important network, Univision - the network that matters for the White House tonight – will be covering it. And they’ll even be delaying their coverage of the Latin Grammys to take the president’s speech, and that’s what the White House cares about.
SIEGEL: The Latin Grammys being a pretty big draw for a Latino audience.
LIASSON: Yes, the audience that counts with the White House tonight.
SIEGEL: That’s NPR’s Mara Liasson at the White House. And NPR will have special coverage of the president’s address, which is set to begin at 8 p.m. Eastern.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.