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Obama Immigration Action Stirs Fierce Debate in Congress

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, accompanied by United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, speaks at a Washington rally to urge President Barack Obama to move forward on executive action on immigration, Nov. 19, 2014.

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday fiercely debated the wisdom and legality of action by President Barack Obama to bypass Congress and shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The mere whisper of an imminent executive order on the subject had senators scrambling to the chamber floor to draw battle lines.

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said Obama was not entitled to act on his own.

“Most Americans will correctly view this as an abuse of power. An abuse of power!" Cornyn said. "His unilateral action, which is unconstitutional and illegal, will be deeply harmful to our nation’s tradition of the rule of law, and deeply harmful to the future of our democracy.”

The president insists he is acting only because Congress has passed no legislation whatsoever to reform America’s much-criticized immigration system. That point was echoed by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who noted that the only immigration reform bill to pass either chamber in more than a decade — a comprehensive Senate bill approved last year — has gone nowhere in the House.

“The Republican-led House of Representatives has failed to have a hearing on this bill, has refused to bring this bill to the floor, has refused to bring any immigration bill to the floor," Durbin said. "They refuse to address the obvious: We have a broken immigration system. And they refuse to act.”

Keep families together

Obama is expected to defer deportations for millions of foreign citizens living illegally in the United States who have U.S.-born children. Such a move would prevent families from being split apart, but would fall short of the comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws most lawmakers say is needed. Only Congress can change federal law.

Washington officials said Obama's plans, to be unveiled Thursday in Las Vegas, could pertain to as many as five million people. These immigrants would be allowed to stay in the country and work but would not be entitled to federal benefits.

Republicans like Cornyn say an immigration overhaul is still possible, but not if Obama short-circuits the political process by acting on his own.

“The message that the president and our Democratic friends have given is: We give up. We are not going to do our job as legislators," Cornyn said. "We are going to let the president with the stroke of a pen provide an executive amnesty to millions of people."

Precedent for action

Not so, according to Durbin, who noted that Obama would not be the first president to act on immigration.

“Every president of the United States since Dwight D. Eisenhower has used his executive authority to improve our immigration system," Durbin said. "Every single one of them. President George H.W. Bush issued a family fairness policy allowing 1.5 million people in America to apply for deferred action and work permits. It is clear that presidents have the authority to do this.”

Which side is correct? That may be left to the judiciary to decide, as Republicans have promised to challenge any executive order on immigration in federal court. For now, all eyes in the debate are on the White House, where Obama has the next move.