WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and his allies, confronting a buildup of GOP criticism, are seeking to sell the president's executive actions on immigration as good politics and good policy.
The effort is crucial to Obama as he tries to dampen Republican cries to undo the administrative measures and, at the same time, strives to win the trust of immigrants and get them to participate. Obama is starting with a rally Friday at the Las Vegas high school where he launched his 2013 drive for an overhaul of the immigration system.
The White House is enlisting the aid of immigrant advocacy groups and hoping to keep Democrats united, with some exceptions, behind a single message.
Expected to join Obama on his trip to Nevada were home state senator and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Immigration advocacy groups scheduled news conferences Friday in multiple states to promote Obama's plans.
The executive actions, which Obama laid out in a prime-time television address Thursday, are designed to make nearly 5 million immigrants illegally in the United States eligible for protection from deportation and for work permits. It would mainly cover parents of U.S. citizens and of legal residents as long as the parents have been in the U.S. for five years or more. But Obama's actions also would change enforcement priorities by emphasizing the deportation of new illegal arrivals and criminals.
Obama's decision to bypass Congress with his directives infuriated Republicans, who have accused him of vastly exceeding his authority. Obama, already prepared with a counter-argument, noted that the GOP-controlled House had failed to act on a bipartisan bill that passed in the Senate last year.
"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," Obama said in his national address.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama, in sidestepping Congress, had damaged his ability to get things done.
"By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left," Boehner said in a statement following Obama's speech.
Many Americans still support paths to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the U.S., but they don't tend to support Obama acting on his own. Indeed, after Senate Democrats met with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough on Thursday, one of them, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said he told McDonough now was the wrong time for Obama to act.
"I think he ought to wait till the new Congress comes in, give them a couple of months, drop the plan, say this is what we're going to do if they don't take action," Manchin said.
White House officials believe Obama must respond forcefully to Republican criticism that he has exceeded his authority. That negative idea appears to be embedded with the public. A Wall Street Journal NBC poll released this week showed that 48 percent of those surveyed opposed Obama taking executive action on immigration, while 38 supported the idea.
When asked about specific policy measures, without Obama's name attached, nearly 3 of 4 respondents in the poll said they favored a pathway to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the U.S. if they paid a fine and back taxes and passed a background check. Those are key elements of Obama's legislative proposal to overhaul immigration.
"To those Republicans who think this is an abuse of executive power, they hold the trump card — they could pass a bill," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said as he took to the airwaves early Friday in a series of television interviews to promote the action. "If they pass legislation that will reform our immigration system in a comprehensive but common sense way, the president is happy to allow that legislation to supersede his executive action."
"The closest thing we have to amnesty right now is doing nothing," he said.
Obama also wants to make sure immigrants eligible for his program do enroll. Advocates fear that with only two years left in Obama's presidency and with Republican threats to undo the executive actions, eligible immigrants won't sign up.
Without enrollment by millions of immigrants seeking to obtain work permits, these advocates fear, Obama's executive order would become an easy target for a new president with a different immigration agenda.
Still contending with a spike of Central American migrants who crossed the border this summer, Obama is also eager to draw attention to the southern border in hopes that his actions don't create an incentive for more attempted crossings.