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Washington Braces for a Brawl Over Obama’s Executive Order on Immigration

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Mark Stricherz - published on 11/12/14 - updated on 06/08/17

While president threatens action, Republicans plan to grill attorney general pick on legality of acting alone.

WASHINGTON — Washington is bracing for a political fistfight on a proposed executive order that would grant a reprieve for as many as 12 million illegal immigrants.

A week after they seized control of the Senate, Republicans warned President Obama again not to halt deportations for and give work permits to millions of undocumented workers. “It would be a major provocation and undoubtedly result in a backlash among R’s of every stripe. Not a good way to start an era of divided government,” an aide to a Senate Republican leader wrote in an email.

A top aide to a House Republican said backbenchers will take their cue from leadership after Congress resumes business on Wednesday. “I know they all followed the exchanges last week and all the president said, but I believe they want to hear from our leadership.  As you know, this is a big issue and it is tied to other important issues,” the aide wrote in an email interview.

Last Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that an executive order would "poison the well" with Republicans, and "there will be no chance of immigration reform moving in this Congress. It’s as simple as that."

Supporters of an immigration overhaul, too, use strong words about a proposed executive order. A leading Catholic bishop is among them. In an interview with Crux, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson said “(i)t may be necessary for the president to step up and to act in a way that addresses the needs of families.” Bishop Kicanas said he prefers that Congress craft a bipartisan and comprehensive solution, but that congressional paralysis is hurting the families of illegal and undocumented immigrants.

Bishop Kicanas has served as a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee and was a member of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

The Arizona bishop’s words echoed Obama’s. In an interview that aired Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Obama described his dilemma this way: “I’d prefer, and still prefer, to see it done through Congress. But every day that I wait, we’re misallocating resources, we’re deporting people that shouldn’t be deported, we’re not deporting folks that are dangerous and need to be deported.”  

An executive order or action would allow illegal immigrants the right to work and not be sent home to their native country unless they committed a crime.  According to various estimates, 12 million immigrants lack proper documentation or entered the country illegally.

For immigration reform supporters such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a sweeping executive order would help reunite families and extend legal protection to marginalized and vulnerable residents. Opponents of an immigration overhaul say that any legislation or executive order would be a blanket "amnesty." They argue that an executive order would not only contravene the will of Congress and the rule of law but also drive down the wages of working-class citizens.

The warring words between immigration reform supporters and opponents have been years in the making.

In 2005 and 2006, President George W. Bush attempted to reform the nation’s immigration laws, but conservative Republicans nixed his attempt. In 2012, President Obama issued an executive order that granted a legal reprieve to more than half a million young illegal and undocumented immigrants. Immigration reformers won another victory after the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June 2013 by a 68 to 32 margin, but the legislation has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

The dustup over a proposed executive order began in June. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary election partly because voters perceived him as too soft on immigration reform.  Two weeks later, House Speaker John Boehner told Obama that the House would not consider the Senate immigration bill.

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