Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immigration, Executive Powers and the Evolution of President Obama

With Washington spending a great deal of time on the immigration issue, I wanted to take a look back at the issue in its historical context since President Obama appeared on the scene.  This is particularly pertinent given that at a news conference in Australia on November 16th, 2014, the President made this comment in response to a question about his changing stance on "going it alone" on immigration reform, particularly the deportation of undocumented immigrants, by Jim Avila of ABC News:

Jim Avila:  "Following up on immigration — in 2010, when asked by immigration reform advocates to stop deportations and act alone on providing legal status for the undocumented, you said, “I’m President, I’m not king. I can’t do these things just by myself.” In 2013, you said, “I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.” Mr. President, what has changed since then? And since you’ve now had a chance to talk since July with your legal advisors, what do you now believe are your limits so that you can continue to act as president and not as emperor or king?"

President Obama: "Well, actually, my position hasn’t changed. When I was talking to the advocates, their interest was in me, through executive action, duplicating the legislation that was stalled in Congress. And getting a comprehensive deal of the sort that is in the Senate legislation, for example, does extend beyond my legal authorities. There are certain things I cannot do. There are certain limits to what falls within the realm of prosecutorial discretion in terms of how we apply existing immigration laws."

I believe that Mr. Avila's question was very specific, asking the President whether he believed that he had the authority to take the kinds of actions that he is now undertaking and that, in the past, he had stated that, as the Chief Executive, his powers were legally limited.

What is rather interesting is this Google Fireside Chat held back in February 2013, focusing on the comments that the President made (starting at the 18 minute, 42 second mark) where he is asked about the record number of immigrants deported by the Obama Administration and what he would do to ensure that families weren't being broken apart:

Here is is response:

"Well, look Jacky, this is something that I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is that, you know, I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed, and Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system.

And what that means is that we have certain obligations to enforce the laws that are in place, even if we think that in many cases the results may be tragic. And what we have been able to do is to make sure that we’re focusing our enforcement resources on criminals, as opposed to somebody who’s here just trying to work and look after their families.

What we have tried to do is administratively reduce the burdens and hardships on families being separated. And what we’ve done is, obviously, pass the deferred action which made sure that the DREAMers, young people who were brought here and think of themselves as Americans, are American except for their papers, that they’re not deported.

Having said all that, we’ve kind of stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can. And that’s why making sure we get comprehensive immigration reform done is so important." (my bold)

Incidentally, here is a graph from Pew Research Centre showing the number of deportations of both criminal and non-criminal immigrants since 2001:

At 438,421 in fiscal 2013, the Obama Administration has deported a record number of unauthorized immigrants.  Between 2009 and 2013, the current Administration has deported a total of 1.253  million immigrants; by way of comparison, in eight years, the Bush II Administration deported 2.102 million immigrants.

In another town hall meeting held in March 2011, a question was asked about granting Temporary Protective Status to students as shown here:

The President states that he cannot suspend deportations through the use of an Executive Order because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed and that the job of the Executive Branch is simply to enforce the laws that Congress passes.  He also states that the President cannot just ignore the laws through the use of Executive Orders because those actions would be inappropriate for his position as President.

In closing, let's take a quick look at a few comments made by the President in the past about the powers available to the Executive:

1.) March 31, 2008:  The Presidential candidate states that he takes the Constitution very seriously and that the biggest problem occurred when President Bush II acted on his own through the use of executive powers, a process that the current President intended to reverse when he became President.

2.) May 19, 2008: The Presidential candidate, when asked if he will use executive powers to ignore Congress, responds by stating that he will obey the Constitution and will not use signing statements but will either veto or sign what Congress sends to him, as he should under the powers granted to him by the Constitution.  He states that his position is in sharp contrast to what President Bush II's "end runs around Congress".  He also states that it is important to have a President that is not too powerful and a Congress that is not too powerful.

As has become apparent, before taking his position behind the Oval Office desk, Barak Obama was a bit naive about what could be accomplished by a sitting President.  The partisan fractiousness of Congress has definitely had a negative impact on his agenda, however, looking through his past comments on immigration and the use of executive powers would, at the very least, lead us to believe that his stance has evolved, contrary to what he's telling us.  


  1. "You will note that Mr. Avila's question was very specific, asking the President whether he believed that he had the authority to take the kinds of actions that he is now undertaking."

    I read Avila's questions that you quoted carefully, several times. Your characterization of them is sloppy, at best.

  2. I had hoped that I would clear up things by quoting President Obama's past statements on immigration and his role as Chief Executive. Apparently I failed!