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Blaming Congress, Obama readies unilateral action on immigration

The president's move comes on the heels of House Speaker John Boehner's decision not to vote on the issue this year
Blaming Congress, Obama readies unilateral action on immigration 02:53

Updated at 3:40 p.m.

After waiting more than a year for the House to take up an immigration overhaul passed by the Senate, President Obama is moving ahead with a series of executive-level actions he says will improve the system in the absence of any legislation from Congress.

The move was spurred by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, telling the president the House had no plans to vote on any immigration legislation this year, a White House official said.

"I would greatly prefer Congress actually do something. I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing.," Mr. Obama said Monday in the Rose Garden of the White House. "And in this situation the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for security, its bad for our economy, and its bad for our future."

Mr. Obama intends to direct Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to move "available and appropriate enforcement resources" from the interior of the country down to the southern border.

"Protecting public safety is and will remain a top priority, and we will continue to focus on removing those who have committed serious crimes from our interior, but we will redirect other resources to make sure we keep doing what it takes to keep our border secure," the official said.

Mr. Obama has also requested recommendations for additional steps he can take without congressional action, but within the bounds of his existing authorities, to fix parts of the immigration system. He will still push for comprehensive legislation, the official said, but no longer adopt the posture of waiting for Congress to act.

"Our country and our economy would be stronger today if House Republicans had allowed a simple yes or no vote on this bill," Mr. Obama said. "Instead they've proven again and again that they're unwilling to stand up to the tea party in order to do what's best for the country, and the worst part of it is, a bunch of them know better."

If Republicans do move to take up legislation, the president said, "they will find me a willing partner."

The president has come under increasing pressure from immigration advocates who favor citizenship for the undocumented and have accused his administration of being unnecessarily aggressive in deportations. At the same time, Republicans have claimed the president has failed to consistently enforce existing immigration laws, and blame policies such as a program to defer deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children for the recent spike in unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border.

House Republicans indicated they might consider immigration legislation in 2014 when they released a long-awaited set of immigration reform principles in January. But just a week later, Boehner said his members did not trust the president to enforce existing law and would not pursue any legislation.

"If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, the best solution to that is passing bills. Pass a bill. Solve a problem. Don't just say no on something that everybody agrees needs to be done," the president said.

As pressure from advocates increased and the Republicans showed no sign of changing their position, Mr. Obama Johnson to review the deportation program in March. Johnson is reportedly considering ways to limit the removal of illegal immigrants who do not have serious criminal records.

The White House official said the other options for executive-level immigration actions Mr. Obama requested are expected by the end of summer.

The flood of children crossing the southern border - 52,000 already this year - has added a sense of urgency to the immigration debate. On Sunday, the White House confirmed the administration was requesting more than $2 billion dollars for a surge of resources at the border, including immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys and asylum officers to help speed up an already-backlogged system dealing with the child arrivals. Because a majority hail from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, they must legally be taken into U.S. custody before seeing an immigration judge.

In a letter to congressional leaders sent Monday, the president also indicated he will be seeking additional authority for the DHS secretary to exercise "discretion" in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children, and asked Congress to pass emergency legislation that includes "an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers."

He called the situation "an actual humanitarian crisis that only underscores the need to drop the politics and fix the system once and for all."

In a statement released after the president's remarks, Boehner said that when he spoke to the president he reiterated a point he had been making for months: "The American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written."

"Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue. The crisis at our southern border reminds us all of the critical importance of fixing our broken immigration system. It is sad and disappointing that - faced with this challenge - President Obama won't work with us, but is instead intent on going it alone with executive orders that can't and won't fix these problems," Boehner said.

He went on to say that previous executive orders form the president had "led directly to the humanitarian crisis along the southern border."

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over immigration legislation, derided the proposal as a "blank check [that] contains no adequate solution to stem the surge of kids, teenagers, and families seeking to enter the U.S. illegally."

"A better solution to stop the flood of illegal entrants is for President Obama to halt his abuses of prosecutorial discretion, actually enforce our immigration laws within the interior of the United States, and start to crack down on fraudulent asylum claims - all of which he has the authority to do now," Goodlatte said in a statement. "These actions would send the message to folks in other countries that it is not worth the trip to cross our border illegally."

But administration's move has outraged child and migrant advocates, who fear the president is seeking to speed up the removal of Central American children in a way they say violates their due process, international law, and the nation's history of child welfare-friendly policies.

"We are profoundly disturbed by the White House's willingness to sacrifice the lives of women and children for short-term political cover in this humanitarian crisis," Women's Refugee Commission director Michelle Brane said Monday. "There is no question that additional funding is needed to address this situation, however, President Obama's message to parents not to let their children make this dangerous journey is an insult to families in a desperate situation. No parent sends their children into danger unless they feel they have no choice."

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