By LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON—The White House is considering two central requirements in deciding which of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants would gain protections through an expected executive action: a minimum length of time in the U.S., and a person’s family ties to others in the country, said people familiar with the administration’s thinking.
Those requirements, depending on how broadly they are drawn, could offer protection to between one million and four million people in the country illegally.
The deliberations follow President Barack Obama ’s promise to act to change the immigration system, after legislation overhauling immigration law died in Congress.
Republicans have protested that Mr. Obama would overstep his authority by acting alone. Several Democratic candidates in tight races also have complained, and last month the president canceled plans to announce the changes before the election.
Mr. Obama, who has been criticized by immigrant-rights advocates for the delay, wants to grant new protections—such as safe harbor from deportation and work permits—to many people who are in the U.S. illegally but have significant ties to the country, said three people familiar with White House thinking.
Such protections would be temporary since the president lacks authority to give people permanent legal status.
Demonstrators protest President Obama’s immigration policies in Washington earlier this month. ENLARGE
Demonstrators protest President Obama’s immigration policies in Washington earlier this month. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
One person said officials are leaning toward granting protections to people in the country illegally for 10 years and who meet other criteria, though that could be broadened to include more recent arrivals.
Parents of U.S. citizens are likely to qualify, people familiar with discussions said, as long as they meet other criteria. But it is unclear whether the policy would include parents of so-called Dreamers—people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and who were given a temporary legal status in 2012.
Also unclear is whether other family ties, such as being married to a U.S. citizen, would qualify somebody for new protections. Illegal immigrants cannot win legal status by marriage unless they return to their home country for a period of years.
The answers to those questions will determine whether up to four million people or as few as just over one million gain protections, according to estimates prepared by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, which the White House has consulted.
White House spokeswoman Katherine Vargas said the president hasn’t made a decision or even received recommendations from his cabinet secretaries. “It is premature to speculate about the specific details,” she said. Still, a mid-December announcement of the change is expected by many immigration experts.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), who tried to move immigration legislation through the House this year, said executive action would amplify distrust among Republicans in Mr. Obama and make legislating harder. “The right’s going to fly off the rails,” he said. “How do you trust someone who says he does not have the legal authority to do something and then does it anyway?” Mr. Obama previously said that his ability to change immigration law on his own was limited.
White House officials also are considering allowing more young people into the 2012 “Dreamer’’ program that grants temporary legal status and work permits to those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, according to two people familiar with discussions. Some 580,000 people were enrolled in the program as of June.
No matter how the White House draws the criteria, the number gaining new protections is certain to be less than the eight million or so who would have benefited from legislation that the Senate passed last year, but that died amid GOP opposition in the House.
Any package along these lines is sure to be attacked by Republicans and possibly some Democrats as presidential overreach. Administration officials say they are working to make sure that whatever they do is legally and politically defensible.
One person people familiar with the process said the White House is trying to craft a plan that survives Mr. Obama’s presidency and isn’t so unpopular that a future Republican president could easily reverse it. “It has to be politically sustainable,” this person said.
One of the most politically sensitive questions is whether to include parents of young people in the Dreamer program, known formally as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. These people are among the most politically active in the immigration debate and are demanding that their parents not be left out.
The president “must be inclusive, and he must be broad, to protect as many people as possible,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of the group United We Dream. “Any package of administrative reform must include our parents.”
Republicans have said that broad executive action would kill any chance for immigration legislation next year. Democrats reply that chances already are low that the two parties could come to agreement on a bill. Immigration activists are pressing Mr. Obama to take the most sweeping action possible.
The White House also is expected to change criteria used in deciding who is a priority for deportation. It may, for instance, say a traffic violation doesn’t make someone a priority, though other convictions do. The legal rationale is that the administration lacks the capacity to deport all illegal immigrants and has discretion to set priorities.
Other changes are expected to benefit businesses that use large numbers of legal immigrants, such as technology companies. One change under consideration would “recapture” unused visas from previous years in order to make more visas available to such companies, according to one person familiar with the deliberations. This person said that a second change that companies have requested—changing the way visas are counted so that a family unit counts as only one spot toward the limit—is less likely.
This person said the administration is also considering a change that would make it easier for foreign students to stay in the U.S. after graduation while they await employment-based visas.
White House officials are inclined to wait to announce the new policy until after a must-pass spending bill has cleared Congress, to avoid tangling that legislation with any GOP effort to roll back the immigration policy.
Further, the Louisiana Senate race may not be decided until a Dec. 6 runoff, and White House officials want to avoid injecting immigration into any re-election fight by Sen. Mary Landrieu , a Democrat.
It also is possible that the Georgia Senate race will remain unsolved until an early January runoff, but a senior administration official said there is no thought to pushing the announcement into next year. Mr. Obama has repeatedly vowed to act by year’s end.