Obama flexing his executive muscle on immigration reform

President Obama is increasingly looking to administrative action on immigration, as efforts to pass a legislative overhaul continue to stumble in Congress.

The administration has moved via executive branch authority on numerous fronts in recent days to improve access to education for illegal immigrants and loosen visa restrictions for some foreign workers.

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Those steps come as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson conducts a separate review of immigration policy at the president's direction and is reportedly weighing an administrative move to curtail deportations.

Taken together, the administration’s actions signal the president’s resolve to press forward on a core item on his policy agenda, with or without help from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Democrats are rallying behind the administrative efforts, saying executive action is the president’s only play until a there is a viable road forward for federal legislation.

“Given the deadlock from the House Republicans, he has no choice,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. 

The push is generating predictable disdain within the ranks of the GOP.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) took to the Senate floor this week to rail against the president’s heavy use of administrative action.

“The Obama administration claims it wants immigration reform, but they can’t wait for Congress. They act on their own,” he said. “We need to get immigration reform right, and doing ad-hoc rules that fly in the face of the statute are not helpful to the process.”

Grassley later told The Hill that he believes the president’s unilateral action could hamper legislative progress.

“He is hurting the opportunity to get an immigration bill through the House of Representatives this year,” he said. “They want to know that if they pass a new law, the new law is going to be enforced — and he’s showing that he doesn’t care about the enforcement of law.”

Agency officials insist that the recent administrative actions are unconnected, with some in the works for years.

For instance, a new federal directive meant to guarantee illegal immigrants get equal access to schools has been in the works since the last guidance was issued three years ago, officials said.

Unveiled Thursday, the new guidance makes clear that public schools cannot require students or their parents to provide Social Security numbers, birth certificates or other documentation showing citizenship status as a condition of enrollment.

They denied that the new guidance was part of a coordinated administration push on immigration.

Philip Rosenfelt, acting general counsel for the Education Department, said schools are already in the enrollment process for the school year beginning this fall, and the guidance was needed now to avoid further problems.

“The timing is about students, and school districts and the upcoming school year,” Rosenfelt said.

Similarly, officials at the Department of Homeland Security said a pair of regulations related to visa policy proposed this week had been under construction since 2012.

The regulations aim to ease restrictions facing certain foreign workers employed in the United States.

Under current regulations, highly skilled foreign workers in fields including science, engineering or computer programming may be allowed to live and work in the U.S. via an H-1B visa. Their spouses, given H-4 visa status, may come and stay in the U.S. lawfully, but cannot be employed. 

One of the rules proposed this week would allow those dependent spouses to request employment authorization, as long as the H-1B visa holder to whom they are married has started the process of becoming a permanent U.S. resident.

The second proposed rule is designed to ease restrictions for other classes of highly skilled workers, specifically those hailing from Chile, Singapore and Australia. 

The proposed regulations, for instance, would end requirements that those professionals — already given H-1B1 or E-3 visas — must apply separately to the DHS for permission to work.

Further, the rule would give those workers as many as 240 days of employment authorization beyond current expiration dates in cases when an extension request is pending.

Johnson is also conducting a broad review of current deportation policies, which could trigger additional administrative actions.

Speaking this week at the Council of the America’s annual conference, Johnson said he was in the midst of gathering information from groups on all sides of the issue.

“The mandate, as it was stated publicly in March, was to assess whether our removal policies can be enforced in a more humane way,” he said.

The agency has offered no timetable for the review’s conclusion or said what potential recommendations are being weighed, though The Associated Press reported last month that Johnson is considering limiting removals of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who don't have serious criminal records.

Don Lyster, Washington, D.C., director for the National Immigration Law Center, said he believes the idea is on the table.

Such a move would not be entirely without precedent. The Obama administration previously halted the deportations of certain illegal immigrants who were brought into the country when they were younger, following the failure of the so-called Dream Act in Congress.

Lyster and other proponents of immigration reform are cheering Obama on, regardless of the administration’s statements that the regulations are on a separate track.

“We’re urging the president to go bold, and provide as much relief as possible under his authority,” Lyster said.

“I think the president is still interested in seeing a solution from Congress. In the meantime, there are many things he can do within authority to fix the system.”