WASHINGTON – Conceding defeat on a top domestic priority, President Barack Obama blamed a Republican "year of obstruction" for the demise of sweeping immigration legislation on Monday and said he would take new steps without Congress to fix as much of the system as he can on his own.
"The only thing I can't do is stand by and do nothing," the president said. But he gave few hints about what steps he might take by executive action.
Even as he blamed House Republicans for frustrating him on immigration, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to deal with the unexpected crisis of a surge of unaccompanied Central American youths arriving by the thousands at the Southern border. Obama wants flexibility to speed the youths' deportations and $2 billion in new money to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities, requests that got a cool reception from congressional Republicans and angered advocates.
The twin announcements came as the administration confronted the tricky politics of immigration in a midterm election year with Democratic control of the Senate in jeopardy. The fast-developing humanitarian disaster on the border has provoked calls for a border crackdown at the same moment that immigration advocates are demanding Obama loosen deportation rules in the face of congressional inaction.
Obama's announcement came almost a year to the day after the Senate passed a historic immigration bill that would have spent billions to secure the border and offered a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million people now here illegally. Despite the efforts of an extraordinary coalition of businesses, unions, religious leaders, law enforcement officials and others, the GOP-led House never acted.
"Our country and our economy would be stronger today if House Republicans had allowed a simple yes-or-no vote on this bill or, for that matter, any bill," Obama said in the Rose Garden. "They'd be following the will of the majority of the American people, who support reform. And instead they've proven again and again that they're unwilling to stand up to the tea party in order to do what's best for the country."
Obama said that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, informed him last week that the House would not be taking up immigration legislation this year.
A growing number of advocates and congressional Democrats already have declared immigration dead, the victim, in part, of internal GOP politics, with the most conservative lawmakers resisting the calls of party leaders to back action and revive the GOP's standing with Latino voters. The Central American migrant surge, along with the surprise defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the hands of an upstart candidate from the right who accused him of backing "amnesty," helped kill whatever chances remain.
Boehner blamed Obama for the outcome.
"I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written. Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue," he said. Boehner called Obama's plan to go it alone "sad and disappointing."
Obama directed Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to present him by the end of the summer with steps he can take without congressional approval.
For now the White House said he'd refocus resources from the interior of the country to the border, a move that would effectively further reduce the number of deportations in the country's interior by stressing enforcement action on individuals who are either recent unlawful border crossers or who present a national security threat, public safety, or border security threat.
Johnson made his third visit Monday in the last six weeks to the Border Patrol's McCallen station in southernmost Texas, touring the location with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. He said 150 more agents are being sent to the region to help deal with the surge.
Johnson has been weighing various additional steps to refocus deportation priorities on people with more serious criminal records, something the administration has already tried to do with mixed results. But advocates are pushing Obama for much more sweeping changes that would shield millions of immigrants now here illegally from deportation by expanding a two-year-old program that granted work permits to certain immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
It's not clear if the administration will take such steps, but in a meeting with advocates prior to his announcement Monday Obama pledged to take "aggressive" steps, according to three people who attended who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Many of those same advocates reacted harshly to Obama's plan Monday to seek $2 billion emergency money from Congress that would, among other things, help conduct "an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers."
The Border Patrol has apprehended more than 52,000 child immigrants traveling on their own since October.
"A policy that speeds up their return at the risk of their due process rights is both heartbreaking and immoral," said Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused Obama of seeking a "blank check" with no real solutions. "President Obama created this disaster at our Southern border and now he is asking American taxpayers to foot the bill," said Goodlatte.