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Obama to Take Unilateral Steps on Immigration

Obama to Take Unilateral Steps on Immigration

By Alexis Simendinger - July 1, 2014

There was a time last year when President Obama thought politics would propel immigration reform through Congress to his desk. On Monday, he announced that politics had strangled it instead.

In a sultry Rose Garden, with Vice President Biden standing silently by his side, Obama conceded what official Washington already understood: A bipartisan reform measure that cleared the Senate a year ago has foundered in the House during a witheringly partisan midterm election season.

A legislative endeavor Obama postponed in earnest until his second term may now have to wait for an Oval Office successor, and for future Congresses.

In the interim, the administration will reckon with tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children seeking to enter the United States. And Obama said he will flex his executive muscle to make strides for immigrants, even in the absence of new law.

The president on Monday said he will weigh executive options sent to him by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department by the end of the summer. And in the meantime he said he’ll redeploy available resources to the border and ask Congress for $2 billion to tackle the latest surge of Central American immigrants. Obama’s request is expected to go to Congress next week, to cover a need for more immigration judges, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers, and additional asylum officials to help at the border.

It is unclear if Congress, following its Fourth of July recess, will approve Obama’s requests. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, last week told reporters he supports deploying additional immigration judges, but only if they are qualified and experienced and would serve “independently” to enforce the law, and not as “rubber stamps” for Obama administration policies.

Speaker John Boehner informed the president during a conversation June 24 at the White House that his conference would not vote on immigration this year. The two men discussed the situation before an otherwise lighthearted event for professional golfers and other invited guests.

"In our conversation last week, I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written,” Boehner said in a statement that took the president to task.

“Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue. The crisis at our southern border reminds us all of the critical importance of fixing our broken immigration system. It is sad and disappointing that -- faced with this challenge -- President Obama won't work with us, but is instead intent on going it alone with executive orders that can't and won't fix these problems.”

Obama refuted Boehner’s assertion that he preferred to act without Congress, arguing that permanent law was preferable to his unilateral remedies, which can vaporize when he’s out of office.

“While I will continue to push House Republicans to drop the excuses and act -- and I hope their constituents will, too -- America cannot wait forever for them to act. And that's why today, I'm beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress,” the president said.

Advocates for reform have long urged Obama to use his unilateral authority to curb deportations and keep families together. They want him to shield the parents and close relatives of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children and have been allowed since 2012 to apply for status that offers a temporary reprieve from deportation.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faulted Boehner for “an irresponsible abdication of his responsibility to the American people” in not bringing the Senate-passed measure to an up-or-down vote in the House. Obama and White House advisers have for months said there are sufficient votes to pass a comprehensive reform bill, if the speaker would let it come to a vote.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who has sparred with the president more than once over the White House strategy on immigration, applauded Obama’s determination to act where he can, even as House Republicans vow to sue the president for exceeding his authority on a host of issues.

“This is the president I voted for,” Gutierrez said.

The congressman, who chairs the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was among reform leaders who in April provided a menu of options for potential executive actions to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, and since then have waited for the president to act.

Obama last year told advocates he did not have the authority under existing law to expand enforcement waivers to a broader population of undocumented immigrants, and worried about giving GOP lawmakers any excuse to sidestep immigration votes this year.

But this summer’s crisis of 52,000 unaccompanied minors at the border, on top of House candidates who are pressed by their constituents to show zero tolerance for illegal immigration, made a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers politically risky.

Heading into his second term, Obama anticipated that Republican lawmakers would want to seize a legislative accomplishment that could ingratiate their party to America’s rising Latino population and to the business community, which wants reform. But sensing an opening to hold the House and win a majority in the Senate after November’s elections, Republican candidates are hesitant to rock the boat with opponents of reform.

“I've told Speaker Boehner that even as I take those steps that I can within my existing legal authorities … I'm going to continue to reach out to House Republicans in the hope that they deliver a more permanent solution with a comprehensive bill,” Obama said somewhat mechanically.

The sound of sirens somewhere in downtown Washington momentarily competed with his voice.

“Maybe it will be after the midterms, when they're less worried about politics. Maybe it will be next year. Whenever it is, they will find me a willing partner,” he said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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