WASHINGTON – For some White House allies, the long list of executive actions President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address was marred by a few glaring omissions.
Gay rights advocates are seething over Obama’s refusal to grant employment discrimination protections to gays and lesbians working for federal contractors, safeguards they have been seeking for years. And some immigration overhaul supporters were disappointed that he did not act on his own to halt deportations, which have soared during his presidency and angered many Hispanics.
On both issues, White House officials say the place for action is in Congress, where successful legislation would be far more sweeping than the steps the president could take by himself. But work on an employment non-discrimination bill and an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws is stalled on Capitol Hill, leaving advocates perplexed as to why their calls for executive action did not fit into Obama’s vow to act “whenever and wherever” Congress will not.
“In the absence of congressional action, an executive order that prohibits discrimination by contractors is a tailor-made solution to the president’s expressed aims,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay advocacy organization. Sainz said his frustration with the White House’s inaction on the issue was “growing by the day.”
Ben Monterroso, executive director of the immigration organization Mi Familia Vota, said: “The president said he is going to use executive orders to act where Congress fails, and we expect him to do the same with immigration reform.”
The criticism is particularly striking given that it is coming from two constituencies that have reliably supported the president. More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama in the 2012 presidential election, and the gay community has consistently praised him for his unprecedented support.
For gay advocates, the frustration that followed the State of the Union was compounded by the fact that the president announced a minimum-wage executive order that in many ways mirrored the action they are seeking. The order raises the minimum hourly pay for new federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. Obama cast the move as an opportunity to make at least some progress on the issue while he pushes Congress to pass legislation extending the minimum to all workers.
Gay rights proponents have asked Obama to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. At the same time, they want Congress to pass the broader Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has the backing of the White House. That measure passed the Senate last year but is stalled in the Republican-led House.
Heather Cronk, co-director of the organizations GetEqual, said Obama’s declining to sign the executive order means he is “actively choosing to permit discrimination against LGBT workers.”
Obama spokesman Jay Carney said the executive actions the president outlined in Tuesday night’s address were not an exhaustive list of his plans for this year. But Carney also cautioned that he was not implying there would be any future action on the LGBT order.
While leading gay rights supporters were largely united in their reactions following the State of the Union, the view among immigration advocates was more fractured.
Some of those seeking an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws fear that unilateral action by the president would upend the fragile legislative maneuvering on Capitol Hill. A Senate-approved bill is languishing in the House, but GOP leaders are currently working on another set of immigration principles to secure the national border and extend legal status to many of the estimated 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.
But other immigration backers say there is more that Obama can — and should — do immediately, regardless of what’s happening on Capitol Hill. Their demands center in particular on deportations, which has hit about 400,000 annually during Obama’s presidency, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In 2012, Obama suspended deportations of some of the “Dreamers” — immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Advocates, as well as some Democratic lawmakers, want the president to expand that order to cover those children’s parents and other immigrant groups.
Lorella Praeli, advocacy and policy director for the group United We Dream, welcomed Obama’s renewed call in the State of the Union for passing comprehensive legislation, but she still singled out the president’s resistance to take executive action to end more deportations.
“While he’s willing to take action singlehandedly on other political issues, he so far refuses to stop deporting people who would be granted legal status and a chance for citizenship under legislation he champions,” Praeli said in a statement.
The White House argues that not only would such unilateral action destabilize the debate on Capitol Hill but it also could be difficult to legally defend.