WASHINGTON — In the face of an unyielding Congress, President Barack Obama said Monday he will no longer wait for Republicans to act on a sweeping immigration overhaul and will move on his own to make policy changes in what has been a top second-term priority of his presidency.
Obama's decision to take a targeted approach at the immigration system signals the end of a years-long quest for legislation that also proved elusive for President George W. Bush. It also illustrates the deep-rooted and complicated politics of immigration within the Republican Party.
Obama said he will refocus immigration enforcement onto a Mexican border that has seen a tide of children crossing illegally from Central America. That means putting resources into deporting people who are the most recent border-crossers or individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security.
He also said he has instructed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to recommend ways to bypass Congress with executive actions that "fix as much of our immigration system as we can." He said he expects those recommendations before the end of the summer and said he would adopt them promptly.
"I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing," Obama said. "And in this situation, the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for our security, it's bad for our economy and it's bad for our future."
Obama said he decided to act on his own after House Speaker John Boehner informed him last week that the House would not vote on an immigration overhaul this year. A congressional leadership aide said Obama and Boehner spoke privately before an event last week at the White House honoring U.S. golfers who won last year's Presidents Cup.
Arguing there are enough Republicans and Democrats in the House to pass an immigration bill today, Obama said he had chosen to wait for more than a year to give Boehner space to act.
Obama said the thousands of unaccompanied children showing up on the border underscore the need to drop the politics and act on immigration. On Monday, he sent a letter to Congress asking for more authority to deport new border crossers from Central America more efficiently and to penalize smugglers.
"As a first step, I'm directing the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general to move available and appropriate resources from our interior to the border," Obama said. "Protecting public safety and deporting dangerous criminals has been and will remain the top priority, but we are going to refocus our efforts where we can to make sure we do what it takes to keep our border secure."
Obama's decision effectively declares that a broad-based change in immigration policy is dead for the year, and perhaps for the remainder of his administration. Changing immigration laws and providing a path to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the country illegally has been one Obama's top priorities as he sought to conclude his presidency with major second-term victory.
His decision is likely to win few allies. Immigration advocates on Monday already were criticizing his stepped-up measures to deal with children on the border and Republicans were ready to pounce on his decision to take matters into his own hands.
"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," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. "Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue."
Obama still expressed hope that Congress could act after the November elections or next year. But Republicans have argued that if Obama were to act on his own, that would further entrench his opponents.
"If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, the best solution to that is passing bills," he said. "Pass a bill. Solve a problem. Don't just say 'no' on something that everybody agrees needs to be done."
Obama's actions also represent a delicate balancing act between responding to what the White House has called a "humanitarian crisis" over unaccompanied children and a demand from immigration activists to reduce the administration's record number of deportations.
Deportations have spiked under the Obama administration to a total of around 2 million so far — the same number removed during the full eight years of the Bush administration. At the same time, formal removals from the interior have decreased each year of the Obama administration, while the number of deportations from the border has increased.
The Obama administration also has taken steps already to focus deportations on people with more serious criminal records or those who pose a threat. But this so-called "prosecutorial discretion," while harshly criticized by Republicans, never succeeded in calming concerns in immigrant communities about how deportations are conducted.
Obama on Monday was dropping by a meeting at the White House among immigration overhaul advocates and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Many of those advocates reacted harshly to Obama's plan Monday to seek emergency money from Congress that would, among other things, help conduct "an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers."
"President Obama is asking Congress to change the law to enable the government to inflict expedited removal on unaccompanied children. That is simply unconscionable," said Leslie A. Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "No matter what you call it, rapid deportations without any meaningful hearing for children who are rightly afraid of the violence and turmoil from which they fled is wrong, and contradicts the fundamental values of this nation."
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