President Obama could not have been any blunter if he smashed a pinata with "Congress" written on the side. In a bid to shore up the Hispanic vote, the president announced Friday that he would bypass Capitol Hill and enact a long-stalled immigration reform through executive action.
Obama said in a Rose Garden speech that he would instruct the Department of Homeland Security not to deport immigrants brought into the U.S. illegally as children provided they had remained in school or enlisted in the military and stayed out of jail.
The action essentially enacts the Dream Act, an immigration reform championed by Democrats but opposed by most Republicans. Unlike most versions of the bill though, beneficiaries would get two-year work visas, not citizenship. Still, they would be allowed to renew the visas and remain in the country indefinitely.
"In the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, what we've tried to do is focus our immigration enforcement resources in the right places," the president said, arguing the focus should be on dangerous criminals.
Democratic leaders and immigrant rights groups applauded. Republicans mostly contended that the White House was abusing its authority.
"The law does give the administration discretionary tools, but they are not meant to be applied to entire categories of illegal immigrants," said one GOP House Judiciary Committee staffer.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, announced he would fight the policy in court.
Obama may have felt he had little choice. Democrats are counting on a strong minority turnout in the fall, but pro-immigrant groups have been increasingly critical of the White House's lack of progress on immigration.
The new policy closely tracks with a proposal made, but not introduced, by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Tea Party favorite and rising GOP star. Rubio had been trying to build support for it and appeared to be making inroads with liberal organizations.
In April, the White House privately urged immigration groups not to back Rubio's plan but to instead wait until after the election. Ironically, they reportedly argued that the problem with Rubio's idea was it didn't offer citizenship.
Rubio Left Out
Despite the administration's public talk of bipartisanship, Friday's announcement blindsided Rubio's office, said spokesman Alex Conant.
"We first heard about it this morning. They didn't ask us for any input despite all the work we've done on the issue," Conant told IBD. Conant said Rubio's proposal would offer a longer-term visa solution.
Rubio said in a statement that by bypassing Congress, the president had made it harder to reach a compromise deal in the future.
Ali Norani, president of the National Immigration Forum, disagreed, saying Rubio should see it as an opportunity. "Rubio can now say there is Democratic support for this, let's move it legislatively," he said.
Obama also dared lawmakers.
"There is still time for Congress to pass the Dream Act this year because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments," he said.
He strove to present the policy's beneficiaries as sympathetic as possible. "They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart," he said.
Nevertheless he argued his policy was limited action: "Let's be clear: This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix.
Few expect any action in Congress. The Dream Act itself was initially billed as a way to break gridlock but has proved no less contentious. Critics charge it is little more than an amnesty bill.
Obama himself got a taste of the contentiousness when Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro, himself an Irish immigrant, began shouting questions as the president spoke.
"Not while I am speaking," Obama shot back, visibly upset. He subsequently left the conference without taking questions.
"What about American workers who are unemployed while you import foreigners?" Munro shouted as the president walked away.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to rule — perhaps Monday — on Arizona's immigration enforcement law, which the Obama administration opposes.