GOP Senator: Obama Won’t Just Legalize all Immigrants by Himself

PHOTO: Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) ponders a reporters question outside of the Senate chamber after a vote on June, 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) ponders a reporters question outside of the Senate chamber after a vote on June, 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Marco Rubio has been pressing his GOP colleagues to back immigration reform, arguing that if they do not, President Obama could legalize many undocumented immigrants on his own. But one of his Republican colleagues blew up that talking point on Tuesday.

It’s highly unlikely Obama would use executive powers to extend legal status to most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who drafted the Senate’s immigration bill with Rubio.

"I think that would be very difficult to do," Flake said during a forum in Mesa, Ariz., sponsored by The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV. "I don't think that that could happen. I can't see that happening."

Rubio and other immigration reform advocates have claimed that Obama could sidestep Congress and offer legal status with an executive action, similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012. That initiative grants a temporary reprieve from deportation for certain young undocumented immigrants, but not full legal status.

"I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order as he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen," Rubio said in an interview earlier this month on WFLA Radio's "The Morning Show with Preston Scott."

Flake didn’t delve too deeply into his reasoning. But Brad Plumer of The Washington Post provides a helpful explainer here of why it’s unlikely Obama will be able to expand the DACA program to cover a broader undocumented population.

To sum it up, it’s possible for Obama to use his “discretionary power” to defer deportations for some other groups. In fact, his administration issued guidelines last week to grant greater leniency to parents caught in the immigration system.

But it would be legally risky, if not impossible, to extend discretion to everyone. That’s not to mention the political risk that could come with such a move. It’s also important to remember that the program does not offer any kind of permanent legal status.

Even though the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform look dreary in the House, both Flake and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) remain optimistic.

As McCain, another author of the Senate bill, told a questioner: "I don't accept your premise that the House of Representatives will absolutely reject a path to citizenship."