Obama, daring Congress, acts to overhaul immigration

President Obama chose confrontation over conciliation on Thursday as he asserted the powers of the Oval Office to reshape the nation’s immigration system and all but dared members of next year’s Republican-controlled Congress to reverse his actions on behalf of millions of immigrants.

In a 15-minute address from the East Room of the White House that sought to appeal to a nation’s compassion, Mr. Obama told Americans that deporting millions is “not who we are” and cited Scripture, saying, “We shall not oppress a stranger for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

The prime-time speech reflected Mr. Obama’s years of frustration with congressional gridlock and his desire to frame the last years of his presidency with far-reaching executive actions. His directive will shield up to five million people from deportation and allow many to work legally, although it offers no path to citizenship.

“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century,” Mr. Obama said. “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”

In a series of rhetorical questions, he cast the immigration debate in emotional terms. “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” he asked. Later he added, “Whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in.”

Mr. Obama intends to underscore the schism between the parties on the issue of immigration during a campaign-like rally on Friday at a high school in Las Vegas, where Hispanics are a powerful and growing voting bloc.

The trip is part of a White House strategy to try to convince Americans in the next months that Mr. Obama’s actions are legal and right. Immigration advocates plan to use that time to push for greater protections while Republicans are devising ways to defy the president and exercise their new authority.

Conservative lawmakers accused the president of abusing his office — Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, called it a “brazen power grab” — and promised a fight when the Republicans take full control of Congress next year. But even before Mr. Obama’s speech, Republicans were divided about how to stop him and unsure how to express their anger without damaging their standing with Latinos. <more>

Nov. 21, 2014 The New York Times