Originally posted at the New York Times.
President Obama is poised to ignore stark warnings that executive action on immigration would amount to “violating our laws” and would be “very difficult to defend legally.”
Those warnings came not from Republican lawmakers but from Mr. Obama himself.
For years, he has waved aside the demands of Latino activists and Democratic allies who begged him to act on his own, and he insisted publicly that a decision to shield millions of immigrants from deportation without an act of Congress would amount to nothing less than the dictates of a king, not a president.
In a Telemundo interview in September 2013, Mr. Obama said he was proud of having protected the “Dreamers” — people who came to the United States illegally as young children — from deportation. But he also said that he could not apply that same action to other groups of people.
“If we start broadening that, then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally,” Mr. Obama told Jose Diaz-Balart in the interview. “So that’s not an option.”
But Mr. Obama is set to effectively reverse position from that statement and now says he believes that such actions can be “legally unassailable,” as a senior White House official put it last week. Mr. Obama is expected to announce plans soon to expand the program for Dreamers to shield up to five million people from deportation and provide work permits for many of them.
The president insisted over the weekend that he had not changed his position. During a news conference in Australia, he said that his earlier answers about the limits of his executive authority were prompted by people who asked him whether he could enact, by fiat, a bipartisan immigration bill that had passed the Senate, which would have provided a path to legalization for more of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants here.
“Getting a comprehensive deal of the sort that is in the Senate legislation, for example, does extend beyond my legal authorities,” Mr. Obama said Sunday. “There are certain things I cannot do.”
In fact, most of the questions that were posed to the president over the past several years were about the very thing that he is expected to announce within a matter of days: whether he could do something to reduce deportations and keep families together if Congress would not act.
The president was pressed on that very issue during a Google Hangout in February 2013. An activist asked whether he could do more to keep families from being “broken apart” while Congress remained gridlocked on immigration legislation.
“This is something that I have struggled with throughout my presidency,” Mr. Obama said. “The problem is, is that 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.”
The president has at times hinted at his ability to make changes to the way immigration laws are enforced. In an interview in January 2013, Mr. Obama said that “we’ve got some discretion. We can prioritize what we do.” At a forum in March of this year, Mr. Obama talked about the need to focus enforcement on criminals and gang members, and not on others.
White House officials said Monday that the change in the president’s comments over the years reflects a change in emphasis, not a change in opinion. They said Mr. Obama’s previous comments emphasized the limits of his authority because at the time he was actively making the case for Congress to pass an immigration overhaul. Now, he emphasizes his ability to act.
Officials have said the president could announce a series of executive actions as early as this week. The move comes after a concerted lobbying campaign by immigration advocates demanding presidential action in the face of 400,000 deportations every year. And it reflects the president’s frustration that Republicans have blocked all efforts to pass immigration legislation.
At the news conference in Australia over the weekend, Mr. Obama implored Congress to pass a bill that would secure the border, revamp the legal immigration system and legalize many of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.
“Give me a bill that addresses those issues,” he said at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Brisbane, Australia. “I’ll be the first one to sign it and, metaphorically, I’ll crumple up whatever executive actions that we take and we’ll toss them in the wastebasket.”
White House officials said the House speaker, John A. Boehner, made it clear that Republicans, who control both chambers in Congress next year, have no intention of passing a bill that the president could agree with. They note that Mr. Obama delayed any executive action throughout 2013 and 2014, hoping that Mr. Boehner would allow a vote in the House on a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate
When that did not happen by the summer, officials said, Mr. Obama decided he should act on his own.
That decision puts the president in a different public posture from the one he offered in numerous interviews and speeches since 2010. In those settings, Mr. Obama was repeatedly urged to act on his own to reduce the number of families that were being separated by deportations. He rejected that idea and urged people to pressure Republicans in Congress to pass a bill.
In an immigration speech in San Francisco last November, protesters repeatedly interrupted the president, yelling, “Stop deportations!” Mr. Obama told the protesters that he respected their “passion,” but insisted that only Congress had the authority to do what they wanted.
“The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” he said. “And what I’m proposing is the harder path.”
And at a Town Hall in March of 2011, months before taking action to keep the Dreamers from being deported, Mr. Obama said the nation’s laws were clear enough “that for me to simply, through executive order, ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.”
Republicans have seized on Mr. Obama’s past statements as evidence of what they call a shaky legal foundation for the president’s expected actions. In an email to reporters, the Republican National Committee on Monday asked, “When did we add a ‘politically convenient clause’ to the Constitution in the last four years?”
During the news conference, Mr. Obama said that in recent months he received legal advice from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about the limits of what he could do to reshape the immigration system.
What seems clear is that the legal advice will support Mr. Obama’s current statements about his executive powers, not his previous ones.
“I would be derelict in my duties if I did not try to improve the system that everybody acknowledges is broken,” he said Sunday.
Read more at the New York Times.
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