President Barack Obama’s vow to unilaterally act on immigration reform before the end of the year is accelerating the turmoil between the president and the new Republican-controlled Congress. The impending blame game over immigration may also complicate other legislative measures in the works, including the confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, threatening to bring about yet another era of congressional gridlock.
Obama, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, reiterated his pledge to move forward on unilateral action in light of the stalled comprehensive immigration bill in Congress. “I’m going to do what I can do on executive action,” he said. “It’s not going to be everything that needs to get done. And it will take time to put that into place.” Meanwhile, he added, any immigration reform bill passed by Congress would supersede those executive orders.
The president’s remarks exuded defiance against several prominent GOP lawmakers who warned that executive action would damage the chances of Congress cooperating with the White House on comprehensive reform legislation. “If he acts alone, he will poison the well, and there will be no chance of immigration reform moving forward in the country,” House Speaker John Boehner said last week. “It’s as simple as that.” Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has also likened executive action to a “nuclear threat” for comprehensive reform.
Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, but the bill has since stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Some GOP lawmakers had said they would work to pass immigration reform if Republicans took back Senate control in the midterm elections, but executive action may very well thwart that effort.
Meanwhile, the immigration standoff could extend to other issues. Two Republicans, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, have signaled that they would question Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, over the legality of Obama’s executive action plans, hinting that they may seek to block her confirmation if she does not “demonstrate full and complete commitment to the law.”
Cruz, Lee and a handful of other Republicans are also arguing for Lynch’s confirmation to be delayed until the newly elected members of Congress take office in January, rather than during the remaining lame duck session. If they get their way, the Republican-controlled Senate will likely present a tough obstacle to confirming Lynch, who would be the U.S.’s first African-American female attorney general.
A potential expansion of deportation relief for undocumented immigrants lies at the heart of the political battle over immigration. Although Obama has not disclosed any of his plans for executive action, he is reportedly considering granting temporary reprieve from deportation and work permits to potentially millions of undocumented immigrants. He already granted these protections to half a million immigrants through the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also issued by executive order. Observers expect him to extend a similar program to undocumented relatives of U.S. citizens, and potentially relatives of DACA recipients as well.
Republicans have already decried DACA as an overreach of presidential authority, and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in August to repeal it in a largely symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, Obama has been facing a barrage of criticism from immigration advocates over his decision to delay acting on immigration. He had originally announced plans to act unilaterally this summer, saying he would issue the orders sometime after Labor Day, but delayed the move for fear that it would hurt Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.
Obama acknowledged that the current immigration system – including his own deportation policies – was broken. “I prefer and still prefer to see [immigration reform] done through Congress, but every day that I wait we're misallocating resources,” he said during his Sunday appearance on “Face the Nation.” “We're deporting people that shouldn't be deported. We're not deporting folks that are dangerous and need to be deported.”
The comments were a stark contrast to Obama’s assertion three years ago that the government was focusing on “deporting serious criminals, gang bangers, and drug dealers and setting aside non-criminals with deep roots in the U.S. until Congress fixes our laws,” highlighting the sluggish pace of immigration reform efforts during his time in office. More than 2 million undocumented immigrants have been deported during Obama’s presidency.
Immigration advocates, meanwhile, are still calling on Obama to act boldly and swiftly. “Let’s be clear: Republicans have no actual intention to act on immigration reform next Congress. They just don’t want the president to act either,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of advocacy group America’s Voice, in a statement. “The only way this country will see real progress on immigration policy over the next two years is if President Obama keeps his promise and makes sweeping changes ASAP.”