President Obama began Monday by promising a get-tough approach to illegal immigration at the border and ended it by vowing to reduce enforcement in the interior, signaling a major shift in his policies as he conceded Congress is unlikely to pass a broad legalization bill this year.
Saying he is ready to act unilaterally given the deadlock on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama plans to shift agents from the interior, where they are responsible for deporting illegal immigrants, to the border to process the surge of children and families trying to gain entry to the U.S.
Mr. Obama also said he will take more action by the end of the summer to try to halt even more deportations from the interior once he gets final recommendations from his attorney general and homeland security chief.
“Today, I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress,” the president said from the White House Rose Garden, announcing the shift of “available and appropriate resources” from the interior to the border.
“Protecting public safety and deporting dangerous criminals has been and will remain the top priority, but we are going to refocus our efforts where we can to make sure we do what it takes to keep our border secure,” he said.
The president said he gave House Republicans enough time to approve a bill to legalize illegal immigrants but Republicans refused to cooperate.
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Congressional Republicans said it was Mr. Obama’s moves against immigration enforcement that soured cooperation and that unilateral action further reduced the chances for a bipartisan bill.
“I’m shocked that President Obama is calling for more unilateral actions, but I am even more shocked by what he didn’t say today. He said nothing about cracking down on fraudulent asylum claims, nor did he say he would remove those seeking to enter the U.S. illegally,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
Mr. Obama has been under fierce pressure from immigrant rights groups to halt deportations within the nation’s interior and pressure to handle the surge of children and families, who have exposed massive holes in border security. Transferring resources could accomplish both of those goals.
But his announcements also sent mixed messages: Those who can sneak past the border and into the interior, or who bypass the border altogether by arriving legally but overstaying their visas, generally will not be targets for deportation, while those caught at the border will be.
Republicans said the suggestion of safety in the interior will only encourage illegal immigration.
Two years ago, Mr. Obama took to the Rose Garden to announce his first major executive action on immigration: a unilateral halt to deportations for up to 1 million young adults in the country illegally through no fault of their own. That move, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is one of the reasons Republicans say they can’t trust Mr. Obama to enforce any immigration law it might pass.
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Republicans also blame the deferred action and lax enforcement for the surge of children and families, mostly from Central America, who are pouring across the border and overwhelming government resources.
“The president’s own executive orders have led directly to the humanitarian crisis along the southern border, giving false hope to children and their families that if they enter the country illegally, they will be allowed to stay,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a statement Monday afternoon. “The White House claims it will move to return these children to their families in their home countries, yet additional executive action from this president isn’t going to stem the tide of illegal crossings; it’s only going to make them worse.”
Mr. Obama denies that his policies are to blame and points to horrific conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Still, he has struggled to come up with policies to halt the surge.
On Monday, he sent a letter to Congress saying he will ask for more money to increase the number of immigration judges and to acquire more detention space in an effort to hold illegal immigrants long enough for deportation hearings. He said he hopes that will send a message that new arrivals won’t be allowed to stay.
In contrast, he wants to legalize most of the estimated 11 million immigrants who have already made it into the country illegally.
Mr. Obama has been seeking a way to reduce deportations of rank-and-file illegal immigrants from within the interior, and shifting manpower to the border could give him that chance.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and officers said they have been pulled off the duty of tracking down fugitive criminal immigrants and sent to deal with the surge at the border.
Ahead of his announcement, Mr. Obama met with immigrant rights advocates and faced stiff criticism. Many of them said his plan for border enforcement is inhumane.
“We are outraged at President Obama’s plan to ‘fast track’ deportations of unaccompanied minors,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director for United We Dream. “This humanitarian crisis requires a humanitarian response. Instead, this administration has placed children and mothers in cold detention centers and is working fast to disregard the conditions from which they fled and to potentially deport them to dangerous situations.”