President Obama Defends Executive Action on Immigration

In an ABC News exclusive, the president discusses his move to offer legal status to five million undocumented immigrants.
6:33 | 11/23/14

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Transcript for President Obama Defends Executive Action on Immigration
In this week's "Closer look" more from president Obama and his explosive order giving legal status to 5 million undocumented immigrants. I will never give up. He spoke moments after the president got a rousing welcome in Las Vegas and a stern rebuke from the speaker of the house. The president had said before that he's not kin and he's not an emperor, but he's sure acting like one. Your response. My response is pass a bill. The truth is that the senate did a good job in crafting a bipartisan bill that would have greatly improved our immigration system, and my preference is for a legislative solution to this problem. But that didn't happen. It didn't happen because the speaker would not call the bill for a vote in the house, and he still has several weeks to call that bill in the house, or he can work with me and democrats to craft a new bill. He says that's not going to happen now. And the point is that ultimately congress has a responsibility to deal with these issues. And there are some things that I can't do on my own. You haven't done more than you used to think you could do. Several times over the last couple of years you were asked can you do more and you said I'm out of administrative flexibility. That's not true. If you look, George, I oftentimes was just asked can you halt deportations, and I said no, I can't do that. You were asked specifically what can you do to prevent families from being broken apart and you said, I'm not an emperor. I'm not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed. We've kind of stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can. George, what is absolutely true is that we couldn't solve the entire problem and still can't solve the entire problem but what we can do is to prioritize felons, criminals, recent arrivals, folks who are coming right at the border and acknowledge that if somebody has been here for over five years, they may have an American child or a legal permanent resident child, it doesn't make sense for us to prioritize them when we know we need more resources. But do have you the right to make that decision on your own? Absolutely. If you look, every president, democrat and republican, over decades has done the same thing. George H.W. Bush, about 40% of the undocumented persons at the time were provided a similar kind of relief as a consequence of -- You know -- -- Executive action. Both Reagan in that case there were bipartisan bills passed, acting after the bills were passed not because congress did not act. George, I'm not sure that argues in favor. If congress acted specifically and left something out and then the president goes ahead right afterwards and does more than congress agreed to, it's actually not different. It's similar. The fact is is that we exercise prosecutorial discretion all the time. You know, the primary response I have to speaker Boehner and others is, go ahead and pass legislation. In the meantime, what we've got to make sure of is, number one, that our borders are secure and, number two, it's going to allow us to focus on the people we really want out. Number three, what it allows us to do is to say to folks who have been here for awhile, register, we're going to submit -- you're going to submit to a criminal background check and you're going to pay taxes. How do you respond to the argument, a future president comes in, wants lower taxes, doesn't happen. I'm not going to prosecute those who don't pay capital gains tax. The truth of the matter, George, is that the reason that we have to do prosecutorial discretion in immigration is that we know that we are not even close to being able to deal with the folks who have been here a long time. The vast majority of folks understand that they need to pay taxes and when we conduct an audit, for example, we are selecting those folks who are most likely to be cheating. We're not going after millions and millions of people who everybody knows are here and we're taking advantage of low wages as they're mowing lawns or cleaning out bedpans and looking the other way, but then you got politicians suddenly going out there saying, suggesting somehow that, you know, we should be deporting all of them. Everybody knows including republicans that we're not going to deport 11 million people. So, you don't think it would be legitimate for a future president to make that argument? With respect to taxes? Yes. Absolutely not. But what is true, what is true today is we don't audit every single person. But we still expect that people are going to go ahead and follow the law and we have limited resources, we have to make sure that we prioritize those folks who are most dangerous and we should acknowledge what everybody has already acknowledged through their actions and congress acknowledges through their budget, which is we're not in the business of deporting millions of people or breaking up families. The president seemed unfazed by dramatic warnings from top republicans. Mitch Mcconnell should stand up and say, the new congress for the next two years will not confirm a single nomination. You could see instances of anarchy. You could see violence. There's often a lot of rhetoric coming out of congress and in Washington. But it doesn't match up to what I think the American people expect. What the American people expect is that if we disagree on one thing, then we disagree on that thing and then we work on everything else, and one of the habits that we've seen in congress over the last four years since the house republicans took over is that everything becomes hostage to one disagreement. So a couple of years ago it was obamacare, the affordable care act, and they decided, we're going to shut down the government because we disagree with this one law. They say they're not going to do that this time. Well, if they're not going to do that, then we shouldn't have a problem.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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