President Obama on Tuesday amplified his threat to veto GOP efforts to undermine his executive actions easing deportations.
But unlike years past, the president stopped short of using his annual State of the Union speech to press Congress hard for the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that’s been a campaign promise since 2008.
In the first instance, the president threatened to veto any GOP bill that rehashes “past battles on immigration when we've got a system to fix” – a reference to recent Republican efforts to use legislation funding the Homeland Security Department selectively to undo his executive actions halting deportations for millions of illegal immigrants.
The remarks drew Democrats out of their seats in applause, while Republicans looked on in silence.
The second reference is also brief, as the president called broadly for Congress to resist policies that would tear families apart.
“Yes, passions still fly on immigration,” the speech reads, “but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
Obama’s call for immigration reform was much louder in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he urged Congress to “send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”
“Let's get this done,” he said, identifying a number of specific policies he wanted to see as part of that package.
The president also pushed hard for immigration reform in last year's speech. He didn't outline specific policies, but he touted the economic benefits of passing comprehensive reform and urged Congress to "fix our broken immigration system."
“So let’s get immigration reform done this year,” he said at the time.
But with Republicans now in charge of the House and Senate and the GOP angered over Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the likelihood of comprehensive immigration reform legislation is slim.
Democratic immigration reformers were quick to defend Obama after the speech, saying his brief mention of the topic is no indication he's giving up on a push for comprehensive reform this Congress.
"Absolutely not," said Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). "I just think that he's said all that he can say. … He put forth the executive action when we weren't moving and doing anything. And he's now said, 'Send me a bill.' He can't say anything more."
This year's speech comes as Congress is fighting over the DHS funding bill, to which House Republicans attached five amendments designed to undermine Obama's executive actions on deportations.
The White House has threatened to veto the proposal over those provisions, and the Senate is not expected to pass the package as it stands. But the move by GOP leaders to make immigration among the first issues they tackled with their new majority hints at the political importance of the topic heading into the 2016 presidential cycle.
Highlighting the contentious nature of the issue, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) took at shot at one of Obama's guests at Tuesday's speech. King said Ana Zamora, an immigrant who is benefiting from Obama's 2012 deferred action program, is a “deportable.”
“Obama perverts ‘prosecutorial discretion’ by inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor at #SOTU w/1st Lady,” King tweeted just before the speech.
This post was updated on Jan. 21 at 12:31 a.m.