Confronted with President Obama’s previous statements that a blanket waiver against deportations “would be difficult to defend legally,” the White House tried Tuesday to justify the president’s pending executive action to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
In a Telemundo interview in September 2013, Mr. Obama said he was proud of protecting “dreamers,” people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, from deportation. But under pressure from activist groups to expand deportation waivers, the president said he could not legally take such action.
“If we start broadening that, then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “So that’s not an option.”
Now, as the president prepares to issue an executive order as soon as Friday to grant legal status to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants, the White House is trying to square his action with those past comments.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said House Republicans have forced the president into this position by refusing to act on a Senate-passed bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“House Republicans are being pretty clear about the fact that they’re not ever going to get around to it,” Mr. Earnest said. “And that’s what has caused the president or prompted the president to consider some alternatives.”
Asked by reporters whether Mr. Obama has changed his view of the law in the past year, Mr. Earnest said the president and his advisers are “trying to figure out what exactly the law says and what that means for the president’s ability to wield some authority here to try to solve problems.”
“He wanted to basically find out what authority he did have and to ensure that we were leaving no stone unturned in examining what sort of authority the president of the United States could wield to try to address some of these problems that Congress has been unwilling to confront,” Mr. Earnest said.
The president also has said repeatedly that he didn’t want to encourage immigration activists to believe that he could take action without Congress.
“I do get a little worried that, you know, advocates of immigration reform start losing heart and immediately thinking, well, you know, somehow there’s an ‘out’ here … if Congress doesn’t act we’ll just have the president sign something, and that’ll take care of it, and we won’t have to worry about it,” Mr. Obama said last year on Telemundo.
Cecilia Munoz, the president’s top domestic policy adviser, said Mr. Obama “was expressing in that interview his preference that Congress take action.”
“But he does have the authority, the legal authority, to take action to establish enforcement priorities,” Ms. Munoz said Tuesday on MSNBC.
As the president’s advisers prepared the legal groundwork for Mr. Obama’s action, the White House also portrayed the pending executive order as consistent with steps taken by other presidents. Mr. Earnest said “even somebody like President George H.W. Bush” took such actions, creating the “family fairness” program in February 1990.
The program granted protection from deportation for family members living with a legalized immigrant and who were in the U.S. before passage of a 1986 law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, that granted legal status to as many as 3 million illegal immigrants. The Bush administration estimated that up to 1.5 million people would be covered by the policy; Congress passed a broader immigration law later in 1990 that made the protections permanent.
Mr. Earnest said Mr. Bush’s action covered “40 percent of the undocumented population of roughly 3.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country at that time.” He said it illustrated how presidents are authorized by law “in terms of using their executive authority to take actions related to our immigration system that would have a substantial impact on a large number of people.”
Congressional Republicans have warned Mr. Obama not to issue his order, saying the action would poison any hope of working together next year when the GOP will control the Senate and the House.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, didn’t rule out Tuesday the suggestion that the GOP might withhold the funds for the government to carry out Mr. Obama’s eventual order on immigration.
“It’s always appropriate to use the power of the purse, but it’s important to remember that the president has an important trump card. It’s called the veto pen,” Mr. McConnell said. “So there will be ongoing negotiations in the various efforts to fund the government, both this year and next year, [and] about priorities. And we do have different priorities, and somehow we’re going to have to work out things and make progress for the American people.”
As the debate reaches a crescendo, the group NumbersUSA, which seeks to reduce immigration levels, is running an ad Wednesday in Capitol Hill publications highlighting some of Mr. Obama’s past comments about the inadvisability of taking executive action on immigration.
On March 28, 2011, on Univision, Mr. Obama said, “for me to simply, through executive order, ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.”
On Jan. 30, 2013, asked if he would consider a moratorium on deporting illegal immigrants without a criminal record, Mr. Obama said, “I am not a king. I am head of the executive branch of government. I am required to follow the law.”
And during a Google hangout in February 2013, when asked if he could unilaterally stop enforcing the law against illegal immigrants who have American family members, the president replied, “I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.”
The ad concludes, “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.”
While the White House is now emphasizing the president’s authority to issue an order in the absence of congressional action, the president’s aides are using a contrary argument on the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline.
As the Senate was preparing to vote on a pipeline bill Tuesday, the White House made it clear that Mr. Obama probably wouldn’t tolerate congressional action to approve the project.
Mr. Earnest didn’t use the word “veto,” but he said the president favors an administrative process in which the State Department will determine whether the pipeline should receive a permit. That process has been dragging on for more than six years as the president has been under heavy lobbying by environmental groups to reject the proposal.