Immigration advocates to Obama: Go big

House Democrats and other immigration reformers are calling on President Obama to go big when it comes to administrative changes in deportation policy.

For months, liberal reform advocates on and off Capitol Hill have urged Obama to tap his executive powers to stop deporting certain qualified groups of undocumented immigrants while waiting to see if House Republicans would take up reform legislation this year. 

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But in the wake of Obama's Monday Rose Garden speech vowing unilateral action, some reformers want the president to go far beyond a limited expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, to essentially legalize the millions of undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for work permits under the bill passed by the Senate last summer.

“The administration has unquestionable legal authority to provide all those who would qualify for citizenship under the bipartisan Senate Bill affirmative status with work authorization while making immigration enforcement more just,” Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO said Tuesday in a statement. "The administration should act boldly and without further delay.”

A number of House Democrats are also urging Obama to aim high. While the lawmakers are emphasizing that legislation is the preferred solution to the nation's broken immigration system, they're also encouraging the president to use “every administrative tool at his disposal to address our immigration challenge,” in the words of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip.

Many reform advocates are hoping a wide-ranging list of policy recommendations, submitted to the Homeland Security Department in April by leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, will guide the administration as officials weigh their next move. 

Those recommendations include not only a broad expansion of DACA to include older immigrants, but also efforts to allow illegal immigrants enrolled in DACA to enlist in the military; to bar local governments from enforcing immigration law; and to permit more undocumented relatives of U.S. military members and veterans to remain in the country while they seek green cards.

“There are many options available to the president,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Tuesday that Obama is preparing to take the Democrats' advice. 

“The president was pretty clear that he wants the secretary of Homeland Security and the attorney general to cast a pretty wide net, and consider a wide range of options for doing as much as possible to address the problems,” Earnest told reporters at the White House.

The immigration debate has intensified as a wave of migrants – many of them unaccompanied minors – has recently flooded the southern border, and House Republicans have threatened to sue Obama for what they contend is a habitual abuse of executive power.

Obama on Monday argued that Republicans have an easy solution to prevent him from using his executive pen: Pass a reform bill.

“If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, the best solution to that is passing bills,” he said.

“If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” he added.

The president's new-found aggressiveness on the divisive issue was immediately cheered by immigration reformers – “This is the president I voted for,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a frequent critic of Obama's immigration policy – but not all Democrats were on board.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said Obama's speech makes it too easy for Republicans to ignore the issue this year. 

“We need to put more pressure on the Republican leadership to do the right thing and allow an up-or-down vote,” she said. 

Republicans were also quick to push back. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responded to Obama's speech by amplifying his argument that Republicans simply don't trust the president to implement an immigration law in good faith.

“Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue,” Boehner said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, blamed Obama for both the legislative stalemate and the crisis at the southern border.

“By threatening more unilateral actions this summer while failing to address the issue of border security, President Obama will only worsen the crisis at the border and will further undermine Americans’ faith in the president’s ability to lead,” Goodlatte said.

Still, the most ardent immigration reform advocates say the Republicans' refusal to consider an immigration bill has left Obama little choice but to take steps on his own.   

“The antidote for do-nothingism,” Gutierrez said, “is doing something.”