GOP Rep. Smith presses Obama on legality of new deportation rules

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wants the Obama administration to explain the legal authority behind its recent decision to forgo deportation for hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) says the new policy provides "amnesty" to people who broke the law the minute they entered the country, and he's asking the president to explain where he gets the power to let them stay.

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"[Y]our Administration's decision to abandon our democratic principles and impose this policy without legislation flies in the face of the intent of our Founders," Smith wrote to Obama Wednesday. "And it raises serious constitutional questions about the legitimacy of the policy."

Smith is asking Obama to provide "any legal opinions from the Justice Department regarding what authority the Administration has to impose immigration policies without congressional approval."

Adopted last Friday, the new rules will allow qualifying illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to remain here. The policy does not not create a route to citizenship — like the DREAM Act would — but it would empower high-achieving illegal immigrants to work without fear of deportation.

Obama said unilateral action was necessary because there's been no appetite among Republicans to address the nation's broken immigration policies.

"It makes no sense," Obama said from the Rose Garden Friday, "to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians."

The administration estimates the rule change will benefit roughly 800,000 people.

A number of Republicans have pointed out that Obama, in an interview with Univision last September, said he lacks the legal authority to halt deportations unilaterally by executive order — remarks that were not overlooked by Smith this week.

"The American people and Congress have a right to know what your legal justification is for engaging in an action that a little over one year ago you believed was beyond the scope of the authority of the Executive Branch," Smith wrote.

Friday's policy change was not an executive order, but an extension of "prosecutorial discretion" on the part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — a move some legal experts say is well within the administration's authority.

Smith is also seeking answers to questions about how DHS will implement the changes.

In a separate letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, head of DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services branch, Smith is asking — among other things — how the agency intends to prevent fraud under the new policy. The new rules require, for instance, that beneficiaries must have lived in the United States for at least five years, and numerous critics have warned that there's little to prevent applicants from lying about how long they've been in the country.

In a letter to Mayorkas that includes 32 targeted questions, Smith called the program "a magnet for fraud." 

"Illegal immigrants will be eager to purchase fake documents showing that they arrived in the United States before the age of 16," he wrote to Mayorkas. "And many ‘entrepreneurs’ will be eager to meet the demand for fake documents."

The new policy took effect immediately upon Friday's announcement.

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