Obama: 'Consequences' for immigration officials who flout my orders

Obama: 'Consequences' for immigration officials who flout my orders
© JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama vowed Wednesday to pull no punches in defense of his recent executive actions shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

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Participating in a town-hall immigration forum in Miami, the president said a recent ruling against his new immigration policies by a federal judge in Texas was wrongly decided and promised to use all his legal options to ensure the new programs are ultimately adopted.

"This is just one federal judge. We have appealed it very aggressively. We’re going to be as aggressive as we can," Obama said during the event at Florida International University, hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo, the Spanish-language media giant.

"I'm using all of the legal power vested in me in order to solve this problem."

Expressing confidence that the courts will ultimately side in his favor, Obama urged potential applicants to continue gathering the required paperwork in preparation for that day. 

"You should be making sure that you’ve got the documents, so that when we have cleared out all the legal problems and the application process is ready to go, that you’re ready to go," he said.

Obama took some tough questions from immigrants who said they had family members facing deportation even under the more lenient enforcement policies the president has adopted. Obama defended his position in those cases, arguing that his executive powers extend only so far.

"If I include everybody, then it’s no longer prosecutorial discretion, then I’m just ignoring the law," he said. "Then there really would be a strong basis to overturn everything that we've done."

Obama also sought to alleviate fears among undocumented immigrants that applying to the programs could land them in line for deportation. He acknowledged that there will be isolated "instances" when immigration officials "haven’t gotten the message," but he vowed there would be "consequences" for any federal agents who ignore the new policies.

"There are going to be some jurisdictions and there may be individual ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officials or Border Control agents not paying attention to our new directives. But they’re going to be answerable to the head of Homeland Security, because he’s been very clear about what our priorities will be,” Obama said. “If somebody’s working for ICE … and they don’t follow the policy, there’s going to be consequences to it.” 

At issue are two new administration programs, launched by Obama in November, to halt deportations and allow work permits for as many as 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

Obama and his Democratic supporters say the president has the power to adopt those changes in the name of prioritizing immigration enforcement efforts given limited funding from Congress.

But Texas and 25 other states disagree, and they've sued the president for alleged abuses of executive power they say will saddle their budgets with significant new costs. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville, Texas, sided with the states, blocking the two programs temporarily while he weighs the underlying merits of the lawsuit.

The administration responded this week with both an appeal and a request for an emergency court order undoing Hanen's decision, a legal maneuver that would allow the programs to get underway while the courts consider the appeal.

The Texas ruling has reverberated on Capitol Hill, where conservatives have insisted that any effort to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must include language undoing Obama's executive actions.

The Republican-led House passed legislation last month combining those efforts, but Senate Democrats blocked it repeatedly because of their opposition to the immigration riders.  

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week divorced the immigration provisions from the underlying DHS bill, and the Senate on Wednesday voted 98-2 to advance a clean funding bill to prevent a partial shutdown of the agency.

It remains unclear how House Republican leaders will approach a clean funding bill when it passes the Senate, as expected. Conservatives are already lining up against any funding bill that's not directly tied to the amendments dismantling Obama's executive actions. Their vocal opposition puts House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the position of having to choose between appeasing those conservatives and risking a partial government shutdown, or bucking them for the sake of keeping the DHS up and running past Friday, when funding is set to expire.

On the question of what comes next, Boehner has been consistently noncommittal.

“Until the Senate does something, we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” the Speaker said Wednesday.

Obama, for his part, emphasized Wednesday that his executive actions are temporary and called on Congress to pass comprehensive reform legislation that would provide a more permanent fix to an immigration system that all sides of the debate acknowledge is broken.

"Not only are we going to have to win this legal fight ... but ultimately we’re still going to pass a law through Congress," Obama said. "The bottom line is I’m using all the legal power invested in me in order to solve this problem."