The debate on whether President Barack Obama has the authority to enact his own immigration reform without the help of Congress extends beyond Washington, D.C., and is drawing both criticism and praise from lawmakers here at home as well.
But which side each congressman takes depends on what side of the aisle he or she is on.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis waited until Obama’s presidential address from the White House Thursday night to speak out against the planned executive action that could leave up to 5 million illegal immigrants safe from deportation, if they meet certain criteria.
“As a second generation Greek American, I have a firsthand understanding of the importance and power of the American dream, as well as the sensitivity and passion surrounding immigration reform,” the Palm Harbor Republican said in a statement. “There is no doubt our immigration system is broken, but President Obama cannot act unilaterally and refuse to work with Congress. In the president’s own words: ‘That’s not how our democracy functions.'”
However, in his address to the nation, Obama said he and Democrats have tried to work with Congress to pass reform, and a bipartisan bill actually made it through the U.S. Senate in 2013. But the bill never came to a vote in the U.S. House, and such reform has remained stalled ever since.
“It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise,” Obama said, according to his prepared remarks. “But it reflected common sense. It would have doubled the number of border patrol agents while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line. And independent experts said that it would help grow our economy and shrink our deficits.
“Had the House of Representatives allowed that kind of bill a simple yes-or-note vote, it would have passed with support from both parties, and today it would be the law. But for a year and a half now, Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote.”
Obama got support from a fellow Democrat in Congress, Kathy Castor of Tampa.
“Republicans who control the U.S. House failed to act, failed to allow debate on the floor, and blocked a vote — even after two-thirds of the U.S. Senate voted to pass a bipartisan reform bill a year and a half ago,” Castor said in a statement. “Speaker (John) Boehner said many times that the House would act, but it never did.”
In order to qualify for protection from deportation under the executive action, illegal immigrants would have to meet a series of conditions, including having children here who are American citizens or legal permanent residents, have been in the country at least five years, pass a background check, and pay taxes.
“Most of these immigrants have been here a long time,” Obama said, according to his prepared remarks. “They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here. And their hopes, dreams and patriotism are just like ours. As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: ‘They are a part of American life.'”
But U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, believes Obama is taking the wrong approach, and had not “heard the voters’ message” who gave Republicans majority control of Congress during the mid-term elections.
“I have repeatedly stated that the best way to address immigration reform is with incremental steps, with the first critical step being to secure our borders,” Ross said in a statement issued ahead of Obama’s address. “Instead, the president is headed to Las Vegas to gamble away our national security by granting massive amnesty rights while failing to secure our border. The president’s go-it-alone attitude will cause irreparable harm to any effort to reform our immigration system, and ruin any chance of having a positive working relationship with Congress during his final two years in office.”
Obama, however, stood behind his claim that the reform he has proposed is not amnesty.
“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty,” Obama said. “Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today — millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.”
Bilirakis reminded the president that leaders like himself and others in Washington “have an obligation to preserve the promise of the American dream for future generations.”
“To do so, we must uphold the rule of law and ensure its equal application,” Bilirakis said. “This means that we must enforce current immigration laws, strengthen the borders, and ensure all visas are enforced properly. This is an issue that impacts all Americans, and we must unite to solve this problem.
“In doing so, we can ensure the American dream remains alive and well for future generations.”