ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In two hours, President Obama will deliver a primetime address from the White House. He will lay out the unilateral actions he's taking to make temporary changes in the nation's immigration policy. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to preview the president's speech, and Scott, what have you found about the president will unveil tonight?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Robert, he's going to be extending temporary relief from deportation to millions of immigrants who are in this country illegally, and I should underscore that that relief is temporary. This is not a permanent pass, and it's not a path to citizenship, as was envisioned under the comprehensive immigration bill that was passed by the Senate. There are two big categories of people who would be affected by this. One is parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders. That would cover about 3.7 million people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And then the president is also planning to expand the earlier program that was extended to the so-called DREAMers - that is, people who were brought to this country illegally as children. There's no longer going to be an upper age limit on that, and they're pushing forward the date that is kind of the cut-off for that'll extend that program to about another 300,000 people.
SIEGEL: Now, does the White House think it's on a strong legal ground here, with the president taking executive action?
HORSLEY: Well, yes, although this was ground that the president himself said, repeatedly, he didn't want to have to stand on. But the fact is even when you grant legal status to several million people, there are still going to be millions more immigrants in this country illegally subject to deportation - far more than the government has the resources to actually deport. So the administration says, it's simply using its discretion to steer those resources to the people it most wants to see removed from the country. Past presidents have exercised similar executive authority. After the 1986 immigration law, President Bush - President Reagan and the first President Bush used a policy to cover about 1.5 million people, which, relative to the size of the illegal immigrant population back then, is pretty comparable with what President Obama's doing.
SIEGEL: Now, on to politics. What are Republicans likely to do in response to this?
HORSLEY: Well, first, they're going to scream bloody murder, and they're going to accuse the president of executive overreach. And they're going to use President Obama's own words against him because for most of last year, whenever he was pressed by immigration activists to take this kind of action, he said, look, that's beyond the scope of my authority. Now, legal experts say, he does have this power. He's on solid legal ground, but he has certainly served up the Republicans' talking points for them. As a practical matter though, it's not really clear what Republican lawmakers can do to stop this. The courts are usually reluctant to get involved in this kind of turf battle. And while lawmakers can try to use the power of the purse to cut funding, that's a pretty blunt instrument and, you know, it doesn't cost much to not deport people.
SIEGEL: What about the idea that the president could have waited a few months or a couple of months to give Congress one more chance to act on legislation?
HORSLEY: Yeah. Republicans have used a lot of colorful metaphors to describe how the president is either poisoning the well or playing with matches and going to burn himself or waving a red flag in front of a bull. All of those arguments have some merit, but the White House conclusion here is the well was already poisoned, the bull wasn't likely to play nice anyway, and any promise that the House was about to move on immigration had a kind of a Lucy and the football quality to it. So from the White House point of view, they had a chance here to help a few million people, keep some families together, not split them up, and the president decided to take it.
SIEGEL: Big TV networks are not carrying the speech tonight, Scott, but...
HORSLEY: It will be on Univision, where it'll be a nice lead-in to the Latin Grammys.
SIEGEL: OK, thank you. NPR's Scott Horsley. The president is said to speak at 8 p.m. Eastern Time and NPR will be airing the speech live, followed by Special Coverage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.