Barack Obama has shrugged off Republican criticism of his move to lift the threat of deportation from millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States.
In an interview on ABC’s This Week, the US president said it was important that he acted unilaterally to prioritise the deportation of criminals and recent arrivals and spare those who had lived illegally in the US for at least five years and had roots, including children who were American citizens.
“Why we would prefer a system in which they’re in the shadows, potentially taking advantage of living here but not contributing?” Mr Obama said.
He pointed to executive orders issued by Democratic and Republican predecessors and said presidents exercised “prosecutorial discretion all the time”.
Mr Obama’s move, announced last week, has drawn a withering response from Republicans, but has also laid bare divisions within the party’s ranks over how to deal with immigration.
Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas rejected Mr Obama’s claim of prosecutorial discretion. “Essentially he’s gotten in the job of counterfeiting immigration papers, because there’s no legal authority to do what he’s doing,” he told Fox News Sunday.
A second Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said his party shared the blame for failing to get an immigration bill through the House of Representatives.
“Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that is national security, it’s cultural and it’s economic. The Senate has done this three times,” Mr Graham told CNN’s State Of The Union.
Mr Obama indeed cast his decision as the result of the failure of the Republican-led House to act on a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate with cross-party support in June 2013, or advance legislation of its own.
He said Republicans still could pass an immigration bill.
Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho said he pressed the House Republican leadership to start passing legislation on the immigration issue two weeks ago.
“We are going to pass legislation, but it is not going to be the legislation the president is asking for,” Mr Labrador said. “We as Republicans don’t believe you should give amnesty first and talk about security later, which is what the Senate bill did.”
Mr Obama spent the weekend in Nevada after the speech in Las Vegas, mostly playing golf, and returned to the White House last night.