WASHINGTON – President Obama continues to insist that he will take unilateral action to address an immigration system he maintains is “broken and needs to be fixed” but he is hinting the initiative might not come anytime soon.
Speaking to reporters, Obama took note of congressional inaction and said that he has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to determine the extent of his executive authority “to make the system work better.” Johnson has yet to report and in the meantime the president said he is involved in stakeholder discussions and that a set of proposals is being formulated.
“But some of these things do affect timelines and we’re just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done,” Obama said. “But have no doubt, in the absence of congressional action, I’m going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”
Some lawmakers and political observers are attributing any potential delay in unveiling a plan on the upcoming November elections. Republicans stand a better-than-even chance of picking up six Senate seats, which would provide the party with a majority in the upper chamber. By pushing an immigration plan, Obama might be jeopardizing the chances of vulnerable incumbent Democrats in Republican-leaning states.
But Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), perhaps the most prominent immigration reform advocate in Congress, said he anticipates the president will take “bold action” to address the situation and he continues to anticipate an announcement sometime in September.
Gutierrez said he expects the White House initiative could affect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants.
“I told the President he should be as bold and generous in providing deportation relief as the Republicans have been mean spirited and small minded in blocking immigration reform in Congress,” Gutierrez said.
White House aides have spent the last few months discussing a wide range of potential solutions to the immigration problem that has resulted in an estimated 11 million undocumented workers taking up residence in the U.S. Ideas being batted include some type of relief for those law-abiding illegal immigrants who have a close relationship with relatives who are in the U.S. legally.
The Senate passed an immigration reform measure that attracted White House support earlier this year but the House has thus far proved unable to develop its own plan, with conservatives vowing to oppose any initiative that contains what they characterize as amnesty for illegal aliens already on American soil.
That Senate bill that has drawn right-wing opposition offers illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, an opportunity to seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would also be developed.
It also hikes Border Patrol ranks by 20,000 – almost doubling the contingent at a cost of $30 billion — and adds 350 miles of border fencing. It spends $4.5 billion on technical innovations intended to provide security personnel with full situational awareness along the southern border. And it implements an entry-exit visa program to keep tabs on visitors who overextend their stay as well as the so-called e-verify program to make employers aware of a potential worker’s immigration status.
Obama said the recent reports about unaccompanied minors, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, illegally crossing the southern border have “allowed us to then engage in a broader conversation about what we need to do to get more resources down at the border. It would have been helped along if Congress had voted for the supplemental that I asked for — they did not. That means we’ve got to make some administrative choices and executive choices about, for example, getting more immigration judges down there.”
The debate over border security was spurred by reports that more than 57,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the southern border into the U.S, since last October. The Pew Research Center, basing its findings on government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, determined that the apprehension of unaccompanied minors aged 12 and younger has increased by 117 percent between FY 2013 and the first eight months of the current fiscal year. Apprehension of teenagers during that same period has gone up by 12 percent.
Officials expect the total crossing the border to reach 90,000 by the end of 2014.
There are numerous rationales for the sudden surge. Democrats maintain the children are hoping to escape poverty and violence – Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate. Republicans assert the Obama administration’s lenient treatment of those crossing the Rio Grande has given those entering reason to believe they can stay once they enter. GOP lawmakers frequently cite a two-year-old program that grants work permits and relief from deportation to more than 500,000 immigrants brought here illegally as children.
Obama acknowledged that the situation with unaccompanied minors “has kept us busy.”
“But it has not stopped the process of looking more broadly about how do we get a smarter immigration system in place while we’re waiting for Congress to act,” he said. “And it continues to be my belief that if I can’t see congressional action, that I need to do at least what I can in order to make the system work better.”
In his remarks, the president did not set a date for action.
Republican reaction to the president’s intentions has been scathing. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration legislation, said Obama already has taken actions damaging to the situation, asserting that he has “enticed tens of thousands of kids, teenagers, and families from Central America to come to the U.S. illegally with the hope of staying here.”
“Rather than take the actions needed to stop the crisis he created, President Obama proposes to take more unilateral actions this year to stop immigration enforcement,” Goodlatte said. “Such actions will only encourage more people to make the dangerous trek north. It’s clear that immigration enforcement is key to ending the crisis at the border and preventing similar situations in the future.”
Goodlatte said it’s the duty of Congress, not the executive branch, under the Constitution to set immigration law and that any unilateral action by the president would be an abuse of power.
“The president does not have the authority to amend, suspend, and rewrite our immigration laws on his own terms,” Goodlatte said.
Several GOP foes, including Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, a potential Republican presidential candidate and early supporter of immigration reform who has since disavowed the effort, are hinting that the confrontation could lead to another governmental shutdown. The next fiscal year begins Nov. 1 and lawmakers have to either vote on a budget or a continuing resolution to keep the government’s doors open.
“I’m interested to see what kinds of ideas my colleagues have about using funding mechanisms to address this issue,” Rubio told Breitbart.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declared it would be “a real shame if Republicans were to engage in an effort to shut down the government over a common-sense solution” like the one contemplated by Obama.
“The president is determined to act where House Republicans won’t,” Earnest said. “And there is strong support for that all across the country — from the business community, the labor community, law enforcement, even senior members of the faith community, some of whom — many of whom, I’m sure, didn’t vote for Democrats in recent elections but are supportive of trying to put in place policies that will address some of the worst inequities of our broken immigration system.”