By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Monday he would take executive action to revamp the U.S. immigration system and move additional resources to protect the border after hopes of passing broad reform legislation in Congress officially died.
Republican John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, told Obama last week that his chamber would not vote on immigration reform this year, killing chances that a wide-ranging bill passed by the Senate would become law.
The collapse of the legislative process delivers another in a series of blows to Obama’s domestic policy agenda and comes as he struggles to deal with a flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have entered the United States.
It also sets up a new battle with congressional Republicans, who accuse Obama of going beyond his legal authority to take executive action on issues such as gay rights and equal pay for women and men.
Obama chided Republicans for refusing to bring immigration reform to a vote and said only legislation could provide a permanent fix to the problem.
“The failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for our security, it’s bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our future,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.
“America cannot wait forever for them to act. That’s why today I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own.”
The president directed Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to move enforcement resources from the U.S. interior to the border. A White House official said the administration would look at ways to ensure the deportation process was focused on national security priorities and that more investigative teams were available to prosecute smugglers bringing people across the border.
Obama asked his team to prepare recommendations on other actions he can take unilaterally by the end of the summer.
The president has pushed for reform that would create a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants within the United States. The Senate bill had such provisions, but Republicans in the House largely opposed them as amounting to amnesty for people who entered the country illegally.
Immigration activists, frustrated with the administration’s deportation practices, pressed Obama to make his executive actions aggressive.
“We are pleased that President Obama finally understands that Speaker John Boehner has officially allowed the extreme wing of the (Republican Party) to kill the best chance for immigration reform legislation in decades,” said PICO National Network, a religious and community organizing group, in a statement. “We hope that now that the facts are straight, President Obama will do the job Congress failed to do.”
Monday was another chapter in a long test of wills between Obama and Boehner, who have battled over healthcare, deficits, government spending and gun control.
Boehner inflamed tensions last week by announcing he was considering a lawsuit charging the president for overstepping constitutional boundaries with his executive actions.
A Boehner spokesman said the two leaders spoke in person about immigration last week.
“Speaker Boehner told the president exactly what he has been telling him: the American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written,” spokesman Michael Steel said. “Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.”
The president sent a letter to Congress on Monday asking for additional resources to deal with the problem of unaccompanied minors entering the country and creating a humanitarian crisis.
That crisis and the death of reform legislation puts Obama in the awkward position of studying new ways to help the undocumented workers who have been in the country for years while getting tougher on juveniles who are entering now.
The White House had held out hope that House Republicans would move on immigration reform this summer before November congressional elections. It delayed a review over changes to U.S. deportation policy to give lawmakers space to pursue a legislative solution.
Many members of Congress have predicted that if legislation is not enacted this year, new attempts would have to wait until 2017 after a new president takes office.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Mark Felsenthal, and Annika McGinnis)