Dems: Obama can act unilaterally on immigration reform

President Obama can – and will – take steps on immigration reform in the event Congress doesn't reach a comprehensive deal this year, according to several House Democratic leaders.

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While the Democrats are hoping Congress will preclude any executive action by enacting reforms legislatively, they say the administration has the tools to move unilaterally if the bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill break down. Furthermore, they say, Obama stands poised to use them.

"I don't think the president will be hands off on immigration for any moment in time," Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the head of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters this week. "He's ready to move forward if we're not."

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, echoed that message, saying Obama is "not just beating the drum," for immigration reform, "he's actually the drum major."

"There are limitations as to what he can do with executive order," Crowley said Wednesday, "but he did say that if Congress continued to fail to act that he would take steps and measures to enact common-sense executive orders to move this country forward."

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said there are "plenty" of executive steps Obama could take if Congress fails to pass a reform package. "The huge one," Grijalva said, is "the waiving of deportation" in order to keep families together.

"Four million of the undocumented [immigrants] are people who overstayed their visas to stay with family," he said Friday. "So that would be, I think, an area in which … there's a great deal of executive authority that he could deal with."

The administration could also waive visa caps, Grijalva said, to ensure that industries like agriculture have ample access to low-skilled labor.

"Everybody's for getting the smart and the talented in, but there's also a labor flow issue," he said.

To be sure, Obama and congressional Democrats would prefer the reforms to come through Congress – both because that route would solidify the changes into law and because it would require bipartisan buy-in.

Still, House Republicans have been loath to accept one of the central elements of Obama's strategy: A pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11-12 million undocumented people currently living in the country – a move which many conservatives deem "amnesty."

Indeed, when the House Judiciary Committee met earlier this month on immigration reform, much of the discussion focused on whether there is some middle ground between citizenship and mass deportation.

“If we can find a solution that is … short of a pathway to citizenship, but better than just kicking 12 million people out, why is that not a good solution?” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) asked during the hearing.

Obama on Tuesday spent a good portion of his State of the Union address urging Congress to send him a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year. Central to that package, he said, should be provisions for "strong border security," for "establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship" and for "fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy."

"We know what needs to be done," Obama said. "So let’s get this done."

Becerra said he and other immigration reformers have had two meetings with the White House on immigration this month, one with the executive team working on the issue and, more recently, with Obama himself. Becerra said administration officials "essentially" know what reforms they want – "and they have communicated that to both House and Senate members, bipartisanly" – but they also want Congress to take the lead.

"They're giving Congress a chance to work its will to move this," Becerra said. "But … I don't think he's going to wait too long.

"If you were to ask him would he be prepared to submit a bill if Congress isn't ready … he would tell you, I have no doubt, 'I can do it in a heartbeat,'" Becerra added. "The president will move forward where he can if Congress doesn't act."

Indeed, Obama has already shown a willingness to do just that. Last summer, just months before November's elections, Obama shocked political observers when he launched a program through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to remain without threat of deportation. The two-year "deferred action" was modeled on the Dream Act legislation that has been unable to pass Congress.

The change was not an executive order, but an extension of "prosecutorial discretion" on the part of the DHS.

Although conservatives howled about administrative overreach, Obama's gamble paid off, as the president won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote at the polls – a margin that has fueled the drive for immigration reform this year, as GOP leaders are anxious to avoid a similar divide in 2016.

Grijalva said the expansion of the deferred action program represents another opportunity for Obama to move immigration reform administratively.

"Like the deferred action that was taken with the Dream Act, I think that can be done for family members," he said.

Not all immigration-reform supporters think Obama has so much space to move on immigration without Congress.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), vice-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, said the president has some license to make border security moves and spending decisions.

"But pretty much he's done what he can do right now," Cuellar said Friday, "and after that it's up to Congress to address the rest of the issues."

"It'd be better for the president to wait for us," Cuellar said. "He can urge us [to act], but it'd be better for us to come up with our own proposal and let the legislative process work itself."