President Obama angrily conceded Monday that Congress will not overhaul immigration laws this year and announced that he will redirect immigration enforcement efforts to the border.
The action — intended to help stem a recent influx of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally — could also pave the way for Obama to enact measures to slow or postpone the deportations of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for years.
Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he will pursue executive actions by the end of summer to “fix as much of our immigration system as we can. If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.”
Obama did not provide specifics in his remarks. But advocates who met with the president said Obama told them he would build off a 2012 decision to defer the deportations of young people brought to the country illegally as children. Democrats and activists have called on him to dramatically expand that program, and Obama has ordered aides to review his legal options.
Obama vowed to take action after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told him last week that there would not be an immigration vote in the House this year. The president, pointing to a bipartisan Senate deal on immigration approved in 2013, chided House Republicans as bowing to extremist pressures in their party rather than pursuing changes backed by most Americans.
“Our country and our economy would be stronger today if House Republicans had allowed a simple yes-or-no vote on this bill or, for that matter, any bill,” Obama said, raising his voice. “Instead they’ve proven again and again that they’re unwilling to stand up to the tea party in order to do what’s best for the country. And the worst part about it is, a bunch of them know better.”
While Obama was one of the last to acknowledge that immigration legislation was going nowhere this year, the collapse of perhaps his biggest second-term priority represented a low point for him. For more than a year, White House officials have held out hope that House Republicans would pass an overhaul of immigration laws, driven by pressure from business interests and a political desire to win Latino votes.
But GOP leaders blame Obama for failing to adequately protect the border and for using executive authority to circumvent Congress — a complaint exacerbated Monday by his decision to go it alone on immigration. Boehner has announced plans to sue Obama over his use of executive actions, and the Supreme Court ruled last week that the president acted unconstitutionally by appointing several high-level aides without Senate approval.
“Speaker Boehner told the president exactly what he has been telling him: The American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.”
Obama is likely to face intense pressure from immigration activists who believe the president has waited far too long to take executive action to slow deportations. Seeking to blunt that pressure, the president on Monday spent an hour with a group of about 20 leading advocates to discuss options.
“He made it sound like it will be one set of executive actions and it will come soon. That’s music to our ears,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who attended the meeting. “He steered clear of details but spoke convincingly enough. He basically said, ‘I will not be able to do all of what you think I should do,’ but he also made it clear he’s not playing small ball.”
Obama had delayed an internal review of deportation enforcement policies at the Department of Homeland Security until the end of summer in hopes that the House GOP would move forward on comprehensive immigration legislation.
The president’s review probably will focus on how far the administration can go in expanding a 2012 program focused on immigrants brought to the United States as children, which has allowed more than 500,000 undocumented people to live and work in the country.
Advocates have called on Obama to expand the program to cover more of the nation’s estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. United We Dream — an organization of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” — has urged Obama to offer administrative relief to the undocumented parents of “dreamers” and U.S. citizens, which could total up to 5 million people.
“Part of me says it’s about time,” Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for the group. “We’re excited. We’ve been ready for this stage of the campaign for a long time. Nothing changes for us. We’ve been pushing this administration to go big and to lead our community and to deliver on some of the promises that were made long ago.”
At the same time, the president was careful to frame any actions he might take as being aimed at better securing the border. The administration informed Congress on Monday that it intends to request more than $2 billion to stem an influx of women and children from Central America that has overwhelmed border patrol stations in Texas.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children and 39,000 women with children have been apprehended at the border this year — a significant increase from previous years. Most of them have come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Republicans say weak enforcement has contributed to the problem.
The administration also is preparing to ask Congress for statutory authority to more quickly deport the children. That decision has alarmed human rights advocates who say they are at risk of being returned to dangerous communities.
During a conference call earlier Monday, some advocates said they would not accept a policy in which the White House toughens its stance on the children at the border while providing enforcement relief for adults who have lived in the country for a long time.
“We will not sacrifice these children in hopes of some reform or administrative relief,” said Kevin Appleby, migration policy director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These issues should be addressed separately and humanely. I know that’s not how Washington works sometimes, but our job is to protect these children regardless of politics.”
When advocates raised that point in their private meeting with the president, Obama responded that some women and children have died or have been abused by smuggling groups, according to meeting participants. The United States must respond forcefully to dissuade anyone else from attempting such a journey, Obama said, according to the participants.
“He got heated,” said one advocate, who along with others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “He said, ‘Who knows how many kids are dying. Even if its 5 or 10 percent, that’s 5,000. That’s too much.’”