POLITICS
11/19/2014 11:56 am ET

Jeh Johnson: Obama Has 'Fairly Wide Latitude' To Act On Immigration

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has "fairly wide latitude within existing executive authority" to act on his own on immigration reform and will do so in a "comprehensive" way in coming days, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday.

"It can't be that we're not allowed to lift a finger to fix the broken immigration system until Congress acts, and we've been waiting for Congress to act," he said at an event hosted by progressive think tank NDN at the National Press Club.

The executive action on immigration is expected to grant relief and work authorization to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children, along with making changes to high-skilled worker visas and immigration enforcement programs. It is likely to also include additional resources to police the southern border.

The Obama administration has stressed ahead of its executive action announcement that it is remaining within the law because of prosecutorial discretion, the routine decisions by law enforcement and agencies to go after some people and not others due to limited resources. So long as the Obama administration is enforcing the law -- and its deportation numbers indicate that it is -- actions like the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and upcoming expansions to it are legal, according to some legal experts.

But other legal experts, particularly conservative ones, argue that broad deferred action for groups of undocumented immigrants goes beyond Obama's executive powers. Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to do whatever they can to stop executive orders on immigration from moving forward, including potential lawsuits and showdowns over government funding.

Johnson made the argument that the administration has improved immigration enforcement and border security. He noted that the undocumented population is smaller than it was in 2007 -- 11.3 million people in 2013, versus 12.2 million then, according to Pew Research Center -- and that border crossings are actually down.

He said the upcoming executive actions are necessary because House Republicans haven't moved on immigration.

"As the president has said many times, legislative action is always preferable," Johnson said. "But we've waited now for years for the Congress to act, and the Congress has not acted."

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