A House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “President Obama’s Executive Overreach on Immigration” was repeatedly interrupted on Tuesday by protesters who weren’t pleased with the hearing’s premise.
After opening remarks by chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that claimed Obama had just announced “one of the biggest constitutional power grabs ever by a president” that gave immigrants “gifts” in the form of temporary work authorization and deportation protection, about a dozen protesters stood up to hold signs and tell their stories.
“My daughter was born here,” said one woman. “Why do you want to separate my family?”
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Parents of U.S. citizens are among the roughly five million people who are eligible for deferred deportation and work authorization under the president’s new executive order.
“You are protesting the executive order, but you are not doing anything to fix the nation’s system,” one man charged.
Another dozen or so protesters interrupted the hearing again about ten minutes later. All of the protesters allowed themselves to be peacefully escorted out by capitol police after the interruptions.
The hearing was supposed to be about the constitutionality of the president’s action and not its policy merits, but both the protesters and the overheated rhetoric from conservatives in the hearing demonstrated the difficulty of separating the technicalities of the nation’s immigration debate from its human effects.
Goodlatte perpetuated the latest conservative meme of comparing Obama to a tyrannical monarch, saying that the president had taken for himself “a jeweled crown worthy of King James II of England, who precipitated the Glorious Revolution by dispensing with the laws passed by Parliament.”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that the president had issued a “declaration of war against American workers” because unauthorized immigrants supposedly steal American jobs.
Defenders of the executive order pointed out that forcing undocumented immigrants to live in the shadows incentivizes unscrupulous employment practices like too-low wages and poor working conditions, which have ripple effects on other workers.
Republican legislators showed a video of all the times Obama has said in the past that he could not legally act to change the nation’s immigration system without Congress. They claimed that he was either rewriting the law, changing the law, or suspending the law unilaterally, which would overstep his constitutional authority because only Congress can make laws.
But many of the clips in the video appeared to refer to broader changes like full legalization—which does require Congress, but which many critics of the president erroneously suggest to be part of his action. And all of the clips came before March of this year, when Obama asked the Secretary of Homeland Security to review the immigration system to see what could be fixed administratively.
Defenders of the president’s action said Obama was acting well within the law, because he wasn’t making or changing any laws but instead instructing his agencies how to enforce them. They cited a letter signed by more than 100 legal scholars affirming that the president’s action is legal.
The authority comes from the principle of “prosecutorial discretion.” Congress only appropriates enough money to deport about 400,000 immigrants per year. Since about 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in the United States, Congress also gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to set policies and priorities on who to deport.
“The legal question isn’t even a close one,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a former immigration lawyer. “The president has clear legal authority to defer removals when it’s in the national interest.”
Even if many Republicans believe the president’s action to be unconstitutional, the idea of impeaching Obama over it appears to be off the table for now.