New York Times
By Michael Shear
November 28, 2014
Months before President Obama took executive action last week to reshape the nation’s immigration system, Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, quietly convened a small group of advisers to explore the legal limits of the president’s powers.
Working in secrecy, Mr. Johnson’s team huddled for hours daily under orders to use “our legal authorities to the fullest extent” on a new deportations policy, a senior administration official said. In five White House meetings over the summer, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Obama, both lawyers, pored over proposed changes, eventually concluding that the president had the authority to enact changes that could affect millions of people and significantly alter the way immigration laws are enforced.
“I don’t think he wanted to be in the position of taking executive action,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, said of Mr. Obama. “It was not the way he wanted to fix the system.” Nonetheless, “at the end of the day, he felt this was the only option he had.”
The decision has infuriated Republicans just as they take full control of Capitol Hill — “We will not stand idle as the president undermines the rule of law in our country,” Speaker John A. Boehner pledged this month — although it remains unclear how the new Congress will react. Republicans have raised the possibility of suing the president, and a handful of conservatives have called for impeachment or a government shutdown. But the party is struggling to respond to Mr. Obama without alienating Hispanic voters, who will be critical to victory in 2016.
Mr. Johnson’s efforts, along with Mr. Obama’s rising frustration with Mr. Boehner and an advocacy community that relentlessly pressured the White House, led to the president’s prime-time address to the nation on Nov. 20, when he said he would shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow many of them to work legally. But the roots of Mr. Obama’s speech, which nervous Democrats asked him to give only after the midterm elections, date back a full, tumultuous and angry year in Washington.
As 2014 began, the president and his aides were hopeful that Republicans in the House might pass an immigration bill that Mr. Obama could support. The president was in regular touch with Mr. Boehner and his top lieutenants, who told him they recognized the need to increase border security, improve the legal immigration system and find a way to deal with the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.
Each time Mr. Boehner arrived at the White House for an event, the president would pull him aside and ask about immigration, according to White House and Republican aides. Mr. Boehner urged patience, saying there was a “narrow path” to get something done, despite opposition in his party from what Republican aides call the “boxcars crowd,” a reference to conservative members who favor deportation for most of the 11 million.
The Senate had already passed a comprehensive bill that Republicans did not believe would pass in the House. Several House Republicans were quietly drafting separate legislation to boost border security and make changes to the legal immigration process. The speaker held out hope that a piecemeal approach might eventually pass.
Mr. Obama told Mr. Boehner that he would not attack Republicans on immigration, even though he would have to press for legislation “every now and then,” a senior White House official said. The president understood, the official said, that “what they were trying to do was hard.”
But immigration activists were already impatient. Some of the president’s biggest allies had gone public with demands that Mr. Obama stop the record number of deportations they said were tearing apart their families. The president’s response was the same: “Until Congress passes a new law, then I am constrained in terms of what I am able to do,” he told Jose Diaz-Balart in an interview on Univision on March 6.
His allies were not convinced. Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., accused Mr. Obama of having “deported over a thousand people a day.” Janet Murguía, the head of N.C.L.R., a Latino organization also known as the National Council of La Raza, called him the “deporter in chief.” Protesters held hunger strikes and sit-ins in front of the White House and taunted him with chants: “Obama, Obama, don’t deport my mama.”
By spring, as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was on the verge of adopting a resolution condemning his deportations, Mr. Obama called his staff together in the Oval Office and said he wanted to meet with the activists and the Latino members of Congress face to face.
The meetings did not go well. In mid-March in the Roosevelt Room, the president urged activists to stop attacking him and keep the pressure on Republicans to pass immigration legislation. “It’s too early to give up,” he said. He berated Ms. Murguía for the “deporter in chief” comment and told them that Mr. Johnson, his new secretary of Homeland Security, would conduct a review to see if deportations could be enforced in a “more humane” way.
The activists made clear they wanted more. Angelica Salas, from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, reminded Mr. Obama that his administration had deported two million people. “People are coming to us in total distress and pain,” she told him. Lorella Praeli, who represented young immigrants known as Dreamers, warned him that her coalition would “make sure everyone knows you have the power to do something about these deportations.”
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change and a participant at the meeting, recalled that Mr. Obama doubted the advocates’ deportation figures and did not take the criticism easily. “The president often was irritated and gave it back,” he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Johnson’s review of the president’s legal authority was supposed to help resolve the issue. But his first attempt in May was rejected, White House officials said, because in the president’s view, he did not go far enough. The effort only sought to sharpen the guidance for immigration agents, but did not provide work permits or directly shield anyone from deportation.
And yet, with Republicans still struggling to move forward, the president’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill reminded him that even Mr. Johnson’s modest proposals would probably derail any hopes for legislation.
Mr. Obama told Mr. Johnson to keep working. The president announced that he would delay the results of the review until the end of the summer, hoping to give Mr. Boehner a last chance for action.
But in early June, Representative Eric Cantor, then the majority leader in the House, lost his Republican primary in Virginia after being accused of being soft on immigration. Soon a surge of unaccompanied children across the border with Mexico created a sense of crisis about the need for more security and weeks of Republican outrage. At a White House event for the Professional Golfers Association, Mr. Obama pulled Mr. Boehner aside.
Mr. Boehner told the president that the path for action in the House “had narrowed almost to the vanishing point,” according to aides for both men. White House officials said the president was frustrated with the Republicans. But he was also coming to the realization that he could not rely on Congress to act.
On June 30, the president called Mr. Boehner to tell him he was about to declare the legislative effort dead. In the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Obama then announced he would “fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress,” and would act by the end of the summer.
He instructed Mr. Johnson to undertake a much broader examination of his executive authority. The secretary and his team concluded Mr. Obama could not grant protections to seven million or more immigrants who might have qualified under the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in 2013, as advocates had demanded. After consulting with Mr. Obama, they identified initiatives that could include five million. The secretary took a hands-on approach, officials said. Sitting at his office computer, Mr. Johnson wrote final versions of most of the directives issued on Nov. 20 setting up the controversial programs.
But there was another delay: Democratic senators who were up for re-election in 2014 told the White House that an announcement by the president could be so politically damaging in their states that it would destroy their chances to hold control of the Senate. On Nov. 4, most of those Democrats lost anyway.
For immigration advocates, it has been a long-awaited victory. This month in Las Vegas, after Mr. Obama spoke to an audience of Latino high school students, he stopped for a moment in the crowd to speak to Ms. Salas and Ms. Praeli, two advocates who had pressured him all year. Thousands of undocumented immigrants associated with their groups would be freed from fears of deportation and eligible for work permits.
“Now sign them up,” Ms. Salas recalled that the president said.
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