Obama to Congress: 'Pass a bill'

Obama to Congress: 'Pass a bill'
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President Obama in a prime-time address Thursday will challenge lawmakers critical of his executive actions on immigration to “pass a bill.”

Obama will defend as lawful his decision to use executive actions to give legal status to 5 million immigrants, and will note that other presidents have issued similar orders.

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“And to those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer:  Pass a bill,” Obama will say, according to excerpts of the speech released early by the White House.

Republicans have blasted the president’s plan, which would extend benefits to the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, calling it an unprecedented overreach.

“This is not rocket science. Are we going to allow the president to violate the Constitution?” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in a floor speech hours before the president’s announcement.

“The first thing we need to explain to the American people is that this is illegal,” Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said later to NPR. “And the president has been saying for three years that he did not have the authority to do this and all of a sudden in the last year he decided that he did have the authority.”

Republicans have also complained that the president’s actions showed little regard for the decisive GOP victory in the midterm elections and that he gave the new Congress no chance to work on the issue. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the actions would “poison the well.”

But the president plans to strike a defiant tone in his address by arguing Republicans had done little to advance work on immigration reform during his nearly six years in office. 

Before his speech, administration officials noted that Boehner would not commit to holding a vote on the Senate’s immigration plan in the next Congress.

The president also volleyed back charges he was granting amnesty, saying a new prioritization program undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would in fact strengthen enforcement. 

Under the plan, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson will issue a new memorandum ordering immigration officials to focus their efforts on the removal of national security, border security, and public safety threats, as well as those who recently crossed the border.

Obama argued that was preferable to the status quo.

“That’s the real amnesty — leaving this broken system the way it is,” Obama said. “Mass amnesty would be unfair.  Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character.  

“What I’m describing is accountability — a common sense, middle ground approach:  If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.  If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported.  If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”

Earlier Thursday, senior administration officials argued the president was on firm legal footing for his executive actions. They said the prioritization directive for DHS was rooted in a tradition of prosecutorial discretion, while the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — established in 2012 for children brought to the U.S. illegally — provided precedent for his work permit and deportation deferral plans.

“It makes sense if you’re the Department of Homeland Security to force your greatest attention on the people who are the greatest risk and you really want out of the country,” an official said.