Obama Prepares To Test Presidential Power With Immigration The decision to use executive powers to do what Congress would not has some critics complaining that the president is going too far. Not so long ago, he was making that argument himself.

Obama Prepares To Test Presidential Power With Immigration

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama is expected to act relatively soon, granting temporary legal status to a large number of immigrants who are in this country illegally. The president says he'll do this because the Republican-controlled House refused to take up a bipartisan Senate bill to overhaul immigration policy. But his decision to use executive powers has critics complaining he's going too far. Not so long ago, one person making that argument was Obama himself. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama has long faced pressure from immigration activists to make sweeping changes in deportation policy on his own. And for most of his time in office, Obama has resisted those calls.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The problem is is that, you know, I'm the president of the United States. I'm not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.

HORSLEY: That was shortly after the president's reelection when the White House had high hopes Congress would pass a new immigration law. A bipartisan bill did clear the Senate, but it's been bottled up in the House, and calls for unilateral action by the president continued.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Stop deportation.

HORSLEY: Late last year, Obama told hecklers in San Francisco he appreciated their passion, but he added they needed to direct their energy to changing the law.

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OBAMA: The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes.

HORSLEY: Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University was happy to hear that argument - that it's up to Congress to change the immigration law. So he was doubly disappointed this year when President Obama changed course.

JONATHAN TURLEY: The test of a president is often to tell his own people that more work has to be done. And I think that's what's so truly dangerous about this. You have a system designed to force compromise and a president who has lost faith in that system.

HORSLEY: Obama says he'd still prefer to see Congress make permanent changes to immigration law, but after more than a year of inaction on Capitol Hill, Obama says he will use his executive authority to make temporary changes.

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OBAMA: I can't wait in perpetuity when I have authorities that at least for the next two years can improve the system.

HORSLEY: And some legal experts have been cheering Obama on, saying the president has wide latitude in deciding how immigration laws are enforced.

MICHAEL WISHNIE: Quite honestly, this is not a close call.

HORSLEY: Yale professor Michael Wishnie is one of dozens of legal scholars who wrote to Obama, pointing to a long history of presidents using their authority in just this way. The first President Bush, for example, granted legal status to one and a half million undocumented immigrants under a policy known as "Family Fairness." To Wishnie, who also runs a legal clinic, this is more than an abstract argument.

WISHNIE: I represent people who get up every morning, go to work, take their kids to school, and their children worry whether their parents will be home for dinner. These principles matter, but so do the human costs.

HORSLEY: The president's action is expected to provide temporary legal status to as many 5 million people, but Turley, who represents House Republicans in another challenge to executive action, warns it could have unintended consequences.

TURLEY: It's incredibly shortsighted for the Democrats. They have no idea who the next president may be. But whoever that president is, he or she will inherit these concentrated powers that the Democrats are so willingly giving to the administration.

HORSLEY: Turley concedes, though, angry lawmakers may have little recourse. The courts have been reluctant to get involved in this kind of turf battle, and congressional funding authority is a clumsy weapon at best. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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