The White House came under heavy scrutiny from Republicans on Tuesday in what’s expected to be the first of many clashes over President Barack Obama’s controversial executive action that shields from deportation around 4 million people in the country illegally and provides them with work permits.
At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, led by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Republican lawmakers spent two hours grilling Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; he spent two hours deflecting them. It was the first chance to see each side’s likely political strategy in what’s sure to be a long battle ahead over the immigration order.
Here’s how things are shaping up:
Why this fight is important
GOP leaders acknowledge that the country’s immigration system is broken, but they say Obama’s unilateral action without congressional say-so threatens the democratic process, probably violates the law and undermines the principles of the country.
“Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way,” McCaul said. “Unfortunately, the president has taken the wrong way.”
Johnson said he wants to work with Congress but that Republicans in the House of Representatives have failed to come forward with a legitimate bipartisan proposal. He defended the administration’s executive action on immigration as a “simple, common-sense” approach to promote accountability for millions of people who aren’t seen as a danger and are unlikely to be deported anyway.
The coming clash
Republicans have threatened lawsuits and legislation that would block who falls under the executive order. Some Republicans, such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, have called to stop funding for the action. If that move results in a government shutdown, King says it will be Obama’s fault.
Johnson warned that withholding funding or requiring incremental funding bills is a “a very bad idea.” He said it would prevent him from hiring new Secret Service agents during the 2016 presidential campaign. And, he said, it would prevent him from funding new detention centers and paying for additional repatriation flights and other security measures on the Southwest border.
McCaul and other members of the committee repeatedly pointed to the president’s own words: Obama said at past rallies that he didn’t have the authority to take executive action to shield more people from deportation. Now he says he does. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, played a short video clip of a recent pro-immigrant rally in which Obama said: “What you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law.”
Johnson countered that he’d reviewed each of the policies and found that none violated any existing laws. He didn’t take kindly to the playing of the video clip: “We acted within existing law. We acted within our existing legal authority. Listen, I’ve been a lawyer 30 years. Somebody plays me an eight-word excerpt from a broader speech, I know to be suspicious.” His response generated a laugh from the audience.
Citing the wave of illegal immigration that followed the 1986 legalization law signed by President Ronald Reagan, Republicans expect a surge of more migrants trying to come into the country illegally. “We essentially tell citizens of other countries, ‘If you come here, you can stay,’ ” McCaul said. “ ‘Don’t worry. We won’t deport you.’ ” He also warned of fraud and asked Johnson how the administration would stop people from using fake applications to enter the deferred deportation program.
Johnson said the White House would focus enforcement efforts on those who arrived illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, regardless of where they were apprehended. He cited upcoming trips to Mexico to work with its government on its own interdiction efforts. He said he also was concerned about fraud, which he said had the potential to “undermine the whole process.”