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Obama to take action after Boehner kills immigration reform

President Obama announced he would take unilateral action to fix America's immigration system after Speaker Boehner said the House would not vote on reform.
US President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden on immigration reform on June 30, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC.

Immigration reform is officially dead. 

President Obama announced on Monday that he would take unilateral action to revamp American immigration policies after being told by Speaker John Boehner that House Republicans will not pass legislation addressing the issue this year.

“While I will continue to push House Republicans to drop the excuses and act and I hope their constituents will too, America cannot wait forever for them to act,” Obama said from the Rose Garden. “That’s why today I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own without Congress.”

Obama's remarks come during the most significant border crisis his administration has faced. In recent months, thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have arrived fleeing gang violence and pursuing rumors of legal status in America. Obama announced he would deploy additional resources to the border and repeated the message the White House has relayed in recent days to parents in countries like Honduras and El Salvador: Most of the children will be removed and parents should not send them on the dangerous trip thinking otherwise. 

But the meat of Obama's speech focused on comprehensive immigration legislation. Boehner's decision to walk away from the table and the White House's decision to act alone marks the official death of reform efforts after two years of intense efforts by immigration activists, Democrats, and some Republicans to pass sweeping changes to the system.

In his remarks, Obama chastised Republicans for using the current border crisis "as their newest excuse for doing nothing.” 

“Their argument seems to be 'because the system’s broken, we shouldn’t make an effort to fix it,'” he said. “It makes no sense.”

As for the separate issue of enforcing immigration laws for undocumented immigrants with longer and deeper ties to the country, Obama said his administration was reviewing new measures to retool deportation policies in response to congressional inaction. 

"If Congress will not do their jobs, at least we can do ours."'

Obama offered temporary relief from deportation to young undocumented immigrants in 2012, a program known as DACA, and immigration activists have demanded for months that the president expand protections to prevent families from being separated. While the White House resisted such calls in the past in order to give Republicans more room to reach a deal on legislation, Obama made clear on Monday that he would move forward unimpeded.

“If Congress will not do their jobs, at least we can do ours,” Obama said.

He left the door open to future negotiations, suggesting that perhaps Republicans might return to the table after the midterm elections or in the next Congress, and said they would find a “willing partner” in the White House “even on a bill I don’t consider perfect. 

“The only thing I can’t do is stand by and do nothing while waiting to get their act together,” Obama said.

Boehner, who recently announced a lawsuit against the White House over its use of unilateral action, confirmed that he had informed the president that immigration reform was stalled. 

"In our conversation last week, 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,” he said. “Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.”  

Boehner’s decision to abandon immigration reform marks the end of a long period of soul searching for the party since Obama's re-election. After flirting with passing major legislation to address the existing undocumented population, Republican leaders are now demanding more deportations instead, effectively putting the party to the right of Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” position.

The journey began in 2012, when officials recommended passing reform as the first step to whittling down Obama’s massive winning margins with Latino and Asian voters. A comprehensive autopsy of the election by the Republican National Committee in March 2013 warned that if the GOP repeated Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” message, then “our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only." Republican pollster Whit Ayres bluntly told leaders that they had “run out of persuadable white voters.” Population projections suggested that Latino voters’ share of the electorate could potentially double by 2030, threatening to usher in an era of Democratic dominance if the GOP couldn’t make inroads.

For a time, the shock of the election loss – especially after so many conservatives were confident Romney would win – allowed pro-reform Republicans to gain a foothold in the debate. Anti-immigration voices were shunted to the side and longtime hardliners like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly expressed an interest in legalizing undocumented immigrants.

Senator Marco Rubio, one of the 2010 tea party wave’s most prominent stars, joined a bipartisan working group that produced a sweeping comprehensive bill that would put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to legal status and citizenship, revamp the legal immigration system to clear backlogs and allow more temporary workers, crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers in the future, and nearly double the size of the border patrol. It passed with a broad, bipartisan majority in June 2013, putting pressure on the Republican-controlled House to follow suit.

The conservative House GOP was always going to be the biggest obstacle. But Boehner had called immigration “an important issue that I think ought to be dealt with” in the days after Romney’s loss and expressed strong interest in pursuing a deal with Democrats.

 ''A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all,” Boehner told ABC World News in November 2012.

But Republicans dragged their feet in the House. Leaders like Eric Cantor hinted at granting legal status to young undocumented immigrants, known as DREAMers, but never produced a bill. A bipartisan working group dissolved, in part due to lack of support from Boehner. Republicans grew distracted – and embittered – by the government shutdown fight and ongoing investigations into Benghazi and the IRS. Conservatives gained ground by arguing that the GOP’s demographic problem was overblown and that they could make up the difference with white voters instead. Businesses, unions, and religious groups worked in concert with immigration activists to pressure GOP lawmakers in their districts with little impact. By the time Boehner produced a draft set of principles for reform in January 2014 roughly in line with the goals of the Senate bill, there was almost no appetite within his caucus for a divisive vote on reform legislation.

Obama chastised Republicans on Monday for abandoning the Senate's bill while failing to produce an alternative of their own. 

"For more than a year, Republicans in the House of Representatives have refused to allow an up or down vote on that Senate bill -- or any legislation-- to fix our broken immigration system," he said. 

As immigration reform withered in the House, outside events pushed Republicans even further to the right in recent weeks. Cantor lost his primary to a quixotic challenger running against “amnesty.” Then thousands of Central American children and families arrived at the border, prompting Republicans to blame the White House for protecting DREAMers from deportation and creating confusion about the law. Over time, Boehner shifted from urging Republicans to pass immigration reform in order to prevent Obama from issuing executive orders to arguing that Obama's executive orders prevented Republicans from passing immigration reform. 

"The president's own executive orders have led directly to the humanitarian crisis along the southern border, giving false hope to children and their families that if they enter the country illegally they will be allowed to stay,” Boehner said on Monday. “The White House claims it will move to return these children to their families in their home countries, yet additional executive action from this president isn't going to stem the tide of illegal crossings, it's only going to make them worse.”  

Republicans have long preemptively blamed reform’s ongoing demise on Obama’s failure to gain their trust and enforce the law. But in terms of the outreach goals outlined by the RNC in 2012, it’s essentially a political surrender: They’re asking Latino voters to blame the president 71% of them voted to re-elect for allegedly failing to crack down on immigration enough to create the conditions for a nonexistent reform bill. Recent polling by Republican firms suggest Latinos are overwhelmingly predisposed to punish the GOP if legislation dies. In the meantime, millions of undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families face an uncertain future as Congress once again punts on deciding their long-term fate.