RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Republican Congress put itself into something of a box when it came to funding the Department of Homeland Security. And President Obama went down to Miami to take advantage of that. The underlying issue that's caused a stalemate over funding is immigration reform. And in Miami, Obama took part in a town hall meeting televised by MSNBC and the Spanish-language network Telemundo. To a friendly and overwhelming Hispanic audience, Obama made his point. Republicans are playing politics with national security, he said, in an effort to stop him from offering relief from deportation to millions of hard-working Hispanics in this country illegally.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that and let's get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Mara, if you will, bring us up to date on the president's executive action, which offers that deportation relief and temporary work permits to people in this country illegally.
LIASSON: Well, that should have started going into effect this week, but a district judge in Texas blocked it. The administration is now contesting that ruling, and last night, President Obama said he was confident that he would prevail.
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OBAMA: Right now, we've got some disagreements with some members of Congress and some members of the judiciary in terms of what should be done. But what I'm confident about is ultimately this is going to get done. And the reason it's going to get done is it's the right thing to do and it is who we are as a people.
LIASSON: Just to be clear, the ruling stops the issuing of work permits, not the ability of President Obama to shield certain immigrants from deportation. That he can do under his powers of prosecutorial discretion. The White House is arguing that immigrants here illegally who meet certain criteria - no criminal records; they're parents of U.S. citizens; they've been here for a very long time - should have the ability to come out of the shadows and get right with the law. These executive actions are extremely popular with Hispanic voters. That's an important part of the Democratic base, and that's why the president was in Miami yesterday. But they are extremely unpopular with the conservative base of the Republican Party, and that's the split that the president is trying to exploit as he raises the political stakes on the immigration issue.
MONTAGNE: And the Republican Congress is also trying to stop him from implementing those orders, or are they not?
LIASSON: Yes, but they're not getting anywhere. At least in the Senate, the first strategy, which was holding up funding for the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be crumbling, and the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has now offered to bring up what Democrats have been asking for, which is a clean funding bill.
MONTAGNE: Well, what about the House? Because this brings us back to the connection between immigration reform and the Department of Homeland Security. Will the House take up what they call a clean funding bill?
LIASSON: We don't know. House Speaker John Boehner hasn't said yet. And this really has been a fight between factions of the Republican Party. And according to what Republican Congress members have told NPR, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who both promised no more government shutdowns, haven't spoken to each other in two weeks, although they did finally meet yesterday afternoon. So even though Mitch McConnell is ready to throw in the towel, John Boehner hasn't figured out how to convince his conservatives to go along. So despite that huge win in November and having complete control of Congress, there are still deep, deep divisions within the Republican Party that haven't gone away.
MONTAGNE: And just briefly, Mara, clarify clean bill.
LIASSON: A clean bill means you just fund the Department of Homeland Security till September. You don't attach anything to it, like a provision saying the president can't offer deportation relief.
MONTAGNE: And the president had promised to pass comprehensive immigration reform and he hasn't done that. Many Latino voters were angry at him because of that failure. Where does the president stand now with them?
LIASSON: Well, the executive action's really changed that. They restored his standing among Hispanics, which had dropped more than with any other ethnic group. And you could argue that his new, healthier approval ratings are due to two things - the economy getting better and the fact he issued those executive actions on immigration in November.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have the same problem they've had for four years, which is how to reach out to the fastest-growing ethnic block in the electorate without alienating their conservative base. The events of this week showed they still haven't figured out how to solve that puzzle.
MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks much.
LIASSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
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