“Well, actually, my position hasn’t changed.”
–President Obama, news conference at conclusion of G20 summit, Brisbane, Australia, Nov. 16, 2014
Politicians generally hate to say they have changed their minds about something. With President Obama poised to take executive action to address immigration, perhaps as early as this week, he was challenged by a reporter to explain why he believed he could take this action now, after years of saying his hands were tied. The president responded with a Pinocchio-laden straw man, saying that the questions had a distinct focus: “their interest was in me, through executive action, duplicating the legislation that was stalled in Congress.”
But as we shall see, the questions actually specifically addressed the sorts of actions that he is contemplating now.
There is precedence for such a shift. In 2011, the president said he could not take action to help “dreamers’—immigrants aged 30 and younger whose parents had brought them to this country when they were children– from being deported. But then in 2012, he halted deportations and allowed them to apply for temporary work permits.
Univision Town Hall, March 28, 2011: ‘The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws.’
Question: Mr. President, my question will be as follows: With an executive order, could you be able to stop deportations of the students? And if that’s so, that links to another of the questions that we have received through univision.com. We have received hundreds, thousand, all related to immigration and the students. Kay Tomar through Univision.com told us — I’m reading — “What if at least you grant temporary protective status, TPS, to undocumented students? If the answer is yes, when? And if no, why not?”
Obama: Well, first of all, temporary protective status historically has been used for special circumstances where you have immigrants to this country who are fleeing persecution in their countries, or there is some emergency situation in their native land that required them to come to the United States. So it would not be appropriate to use that just for a particular group that came here primarily, for example, because they were looking for economic opportunity.
With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed — and I know that everybody here at Bell is studying hard so you know that we’ve got three branches of government. Congress passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. And then the judiciary has to interpret the laws.
There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as President.
Interview with Univision, Jan. 31, 2013: ‘I’m not a king’
Question: Now I know that you have reduced, this is another concern on Twitter, the number of deportations of non-criminals. However, in 2012 more than 184,000 non-criminals were deported. In the spirit of your push for immigration reform, would you consider a moratorium on deportations of non-criminals? Remember, these are your words: “This is not about policy. It’s about people.”
Obama: Well, I think it is important to remind everybody that, as I said I think previously, and I’m not a king. I am the head of the executive branch of government. I’m required to follow the law. And that’s what we’ve done. But what I’ve also said is, let’s make sure that we’re applying the law in a way that takes into account people’s humanity. That’s the reason that we moved forward on deferred action. Within the confines of the law we said, we have some discretion in terms of how we apply this law. The same is true with respect to the kinds of the length of time that people have to spend outside of the country when their spouses are already here for example.
So we’re making some changes there. But there are still going to be stories that are heartbreaking with respect to deportations until we get comprehensive immigration reform. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important for us to go ahead and get this action done. And keep in mind that if we’re able to say, at the end of this year, or maybe even before the end of the summer, that we’ve gotten comprehensive immigration reform done, then that then empowers me to deal with many of these issues in a way that I think, to allow the more specific issues that a lot of people I think would like to see resolved.
Google Hangout, Feb. 14, 2013: ‘I’m not the emperor of the United States’
Question: Your administration has deported a record high number, 1.5 million, of undocumented immigrants, more than your predecessor. And I know your administration took some steps last year to protect unintended undocumented immigrants from being deported. However many people say those efforts were not enough. What I’d like to know is what you’re going to do now, and until the time that immigration reform is passed, to insure that more people aren’t being deported and families are not being broken apart.
Obama: Well, look Jackie, this is something I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is that you know I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed, and Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system.
And what that means is that we have certain obligations to enforce the laws that are in place, even if we think that in many cases the results may be tragic. And what we have been able to do is to make sure that we’re focusing our enforcement resources on criminals — as opposed to somebody who’s here, just trying to work and look after their families.
What we have tried to do is administratively reduce the burdens and hardships on families being separated. And what we’ve done, obviously, is pass the deferred action which made sure that the dream, uh, uh dreamers, young people who were brought here and think of themselves as Americans, are American except for their papers, that they’re not deported.
Having said all that, we’ve got to stretch our administrative flexibility as much as we can. And that’s why making sure we get comprehensive immigration reform done is so important.
Interview with Noticias Telmundo, Sept. 17, 2013: ‘There is a path to get this done and that is through Congress.’
Question: Won’t you at least consider unilaterally freezing the deportations for parents of deferred-action kids?
Obama: Here’s the problem that I have, Jose, and I have said this consistently. My job in the executive branch is to carry out the laws that are passed. Congress has said, here’s the law when it comes to those who are undocumented, and they allocate a whole bunch of money for enforcement. What I have been able to do is make a legal argument that I think is absolutely right, which is that given the resources we have, we can’t do everything that Congress has asked us to do, what we can do is then carve out the DREAM Act folks….
But if we start broadening that, then essentially, I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option. I do get a little worried that advocates of immigration reform start losing heart and immediately thinking, well, somehow there’s an out here—that if Congress doesn’t act, we will just have the president sign something and that will take care of it, and we won’t have to worry about it. What I have said is that there is a path to get this done and that is through Congress.”
The Pinocchio Test
The president has certainly been consistent on this issue—until he saw that the path through Congress was blocked. It’s clear from the interviews that the president was not being asked about executive orders that would have provided comprehensive immigration reform, but about specific actions that ended deportations of a subset of illegal immigrants—precisely the type of action he will shortly unveil.
Previously he said that was not possible, using evocative language that he is not a “king” or “the emperor.” Apparently he’s changed his mind. The president earns an upside-down Pinocchio for his flip-flop.
An Upside-Down Pinocchio
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