Obama Wants to Open a Window for Immigration Reform. Republicans Aren’t Budging.

Delaying executive action hasn’t done much to sway GOP leaders to move reform, who charge the administration can’t be trusted.

A group of military 'DREAMers', undocumented youth who aspire to serve the United States but are prohibited from doing so due to their immigration status, rally in front of the U.S. Captiol May 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
May 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama this week tried to give House Re­pub­lic­ans an­oth­er chance to move im­mig­ra­tion re­form by delay­ing an­noun­cing any changes to de­port­a­tion policy un­til after the sum­mer.

But listen to what they’re say­ing, and it’s clear that top Re­pub­lic­an law­makers aren’t eager to take him up on the of­fer.

The di­vide over im­mig­ra­tion re­form was most clearly on dis­play Thursday on Cap­it­ol Hill. Im­mig­rants who either faced de­port­a­tion or have seen their re­l­at­ives de­por­ted shared heart-wrench­ing stor­ies be­fore the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus in an ef­fort to ad­voc­ate for im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Just one floor be­low that hear­ing in the Ray­burn Of­fice Build­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee grilled Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son, char­ging that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is already flout­ing the law when it comes to im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment, and can’t be trus­ted with new im­mig­ra­tion policy.

John­son, the of­fi­cial tasked by Obama with re­view­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach to de­port­a­tions to make them more “hu­mane,” did con­firm that he would delay an­noun­cing the res­ults of his re­view, which is still on­go­ing.

To House Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Bob Good­latte, however, even delay­ing the res­ults of such a re­view doesn’t change the equa­tion around im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “When the pres­id­ent says he’s go­ing to set a time lim­it and then con­sider tak­ing ac­tions him­self, which many of us read to be again as the pres­id­ent re­peat­ing, ‘I’ve got a pen and a cell phone and if you don’t act, I will,’ then that makes do­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form harder, not easi­er,” Good­latte said.

The delay of that re­view was met with a mixed re­sponse; Hill Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship and some pro-re­form groups have like­wise cau­tioned the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion from tak­ing ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, be­cause they view the work peri­od be­fore the Au­gust re­cess as the last win­dow of op­por­tun­ity for the House to pass re­form. They want to give Re­pub­lic­ans all the space pos­sible to make it hap­pen.

But many ad­voc­ates also de­cried the delay, say­ing there is no time to waste. They charge that Obama has de­por­ted re­cord num­bers, and that without ac­tion those de­port­a­tions will just con­tin­ue. (Good­latte, for his part, said those re­cord num­bers “simply rely on smoke and mir­rors.”) Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, a lead­er for re­form in the House push­ing for ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, told John­son Thursday that he is “dis­ap­poin­ted” and “sad” about the delay.

Then, Gu­ti­er­rez turned to Re­pub­lic­ans to say, “It’s a pretty grand ges­ture on the part of the pres­id­ent of the United States, it’s a pretty grand ges­ture on his part to say ‘no’ to me … and to say ‘no’ to mil­lions of people who sup­port him, voted for him, cher­ish him, love him, and have pro­tec­ted him — for him to say ‘no’ to us, be­cause he wants to say ‘yes’ to you. Be­cause he wants to reach an agree­ment with you.”

John­son also provided clues as to what the res­ults of his re­view will en­tail, in­clud­ing how to best pri­or­it­ize who should be de­por­ted, with a fo­cus on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, pub­lic safety, bor­der se­cur­ity.

John­son said he wants a “fresh start” to the con­tro­ver­sial Se­cure Com­munit­ies pro­gram, in which loc­al law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials share with fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion of­fi­cials the fin­ger­prints of those booked in loc­al jails. Some cit­ies and states have op­ted out of the pro­gram, which crit­ics say en­cour­ages ra­cial pro­fil­ing and dis­cour­ages im­mig­rants from co­oper­at­ing with the po­lice.

He also en­dorsed the prin­ciples of the pro­gram, say­ing, “I do not be­lieve we should scrap Se­cure Com­munit­ies. I be­lieve, giv­en the real­ity and where we are in this coun­try, we need a fresh start.”

Good­latte and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans also blas­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion over the DHS’s last year re­leas­ing of about 36,000 im­mig­rants con­victed of crimes, in­clud­ing some who had hom­icide and sexu­al-as­sault con­vic­tions.

John­son pledged to the pan­el that he is re­view­ing the re­lease of such im­mig­rants, some of whom have “pretty ser­i­ous crim­in­al con­vic­tions.”

That’s one is­sue that has cer­tainly gal­van­ized House Re­pub­lic­ans. In fact, an amend­ment that gives the Justice De­part­ment $5 mil­lion to in­vest­ig­ate the re­lease of crim­in­als from im­mig­ra­tion de­ten­tion sponsored by an im­mig­ra­tion hard-liner, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Steve King of Iowa, passed the House on Thursday.

While ad­voc­ates clam­or for a vote on full im­mig­ra­tion re­form, that King amend­ment is one of the few im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated bills that ac­tu­ally made it to the House floor this year.

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