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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske April 25, 2016

Goodlatte: Obama said 22 times he lacks power to change immigration law

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte says it should be a no-brainer for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down President Barack Obama’s stalled program to shield millions of immigrants from deportation and allow them to work in the country legally.

The high court heard arguments April 19 on whether Obama exceeded his authority in late 2014 by going around Congress and launching the program via executive order. Goodlatte, in a statement issued the day of the hearing, said the court should be guided by the past words of the president himself.

"Before taking executive action on immigration, President Obama stated 22 times that he does not have the authority to change immigration laws on his own," said Goodlatte, R-6th.

Obama’s program would delay deportation of immigrants who have lived illegally in the U.S. for more than five years but have children who are citizens or have green cards. If applicants pass background checks and pay a fee, they could qualify for a work permit and avoid deportation for at least three years. More than 4 million people could qualify for the program.

The president announced the program Nov. 20, 2014, after House Republicans didn’t act on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Twenty-six states, not including Virginia, have sued to stop the program and have won before a federal district court judge in Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

We decided to examine Goodlatte’s claim that Obama said 22 times that he lacked the power to change immigration laws by himself. It’s a claim that’s been made by many Republicans. The source, according to Goodlatte’s statement, is a list blogged on Nov. 19, 2014, by then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Let’s first discuss the problems with Boehner’s list. Four of the quotes Boehner cited do not mention immigration but were general statements Obama made as a candidate for president about limiting the use of executive orders - a power he accused his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, of abusing. In another quote flagged by Boehner, Obama actually was talking about his inability to end the military’s now-defunct "don’t ask, don’t tell" policies on homosexuality.

That leaves, by our count, 17 Obama statements on the list that go to the heart of Goodlatte’s claim. Here’s a sampling:

March 28, 2011

During a town hall meeting at Bell Multicultural High School in the District of Columbia, Obama was asked if he could issue an executive order to stop deportation of undocumented high school students. The president dismissed the idea.

Obama said, "With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive orders, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed - and I know that everybody here at Bell is studying hard, so you know that we’ve got three branches of government. Congress passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. And then the judiciary has to interpret the laws.

"There are enough laws on the books that are very clear in terms of how we enforce our immigration system that for me to, simply through executive order, ignore these constitutional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president. That does not mean, though, that we can’t make decisions, for example, to emphasize enforcement on those who’ve engaged in criminal activity."

Jan. 30, 2013

During an interview with Univision, a Spanish-language television network, Obama was asked if he would consider a moratorium on deportations of non-criminal immigrants.

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The president said, "Well, I think it is important to remind everybody that, as I said, I think, previously, I’m not a king. I am the head of the executive branch of government. I’m required to follow the law. And that’s what we’ve done. But what I’ve also said is, let’s make sure that we’re applying the law in a way that takes into account people’s humanity. That’s the reason that we’ve moved forward on deferred action. Within the confines of the law, we said we have some discretion in terms of how we apply this law. The same is true with respect to the kinds of the length of time that people have to spend outside of the country when their spouses are already here, for example."

Feb. 14, 2013

Obama was asked during a Google+ Hangout, by a woman named Jackie, if he would be willing to take executive action on immigration to ensure "families are not split apart."

Obama said, "Well look Jackie, this is something I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is that I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed, and Congress, right now, has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system, and what that means is we have certain obligations to enforce the laws that are in place, even if we think in many cases the results may be tragic.

"And what we have been able to do is to make sure that we are focusing our enforcement resources on criminals as opposed to someone who is just here and trying to work and look  after their families. What we have tried to do is administratively reduce the burdens and hardships on families being separated, and what we’ve done is obviously passed a deferred action which made sure the dreamers - young people who were brought here and think of themselves as American are American, except for their papers -  that they are not deported. Having said all that, we’ve kind of stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can. That’s why making sure we get comprehensive immigration reform done is so important."

Sept. 17, 2013

Obama was interviewed by Jose Diaz-Balart, anchor for Noticias Telemundo. The broadcaster asked the president if he would "consider unilaterally freezing deportations for the parents of deferred-action kids" - a term that generally refers to people who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16, attend school or have graduated, and have not committed criminal offenses.

Obama said, "Here’s the problem that I have, Jose, and I’ve said this consistently. My job in the executive branch is supposed to be to carry out the laws that are passed. Congress has said,  ‘Here’s the law when it comes to those who are undocumented,’ and they allocate a whole bunch of money for enforcement, and what I have been able to do is make a legal argument, that I think is absolutely right, that given the resources that we have, we can’t do everything that Congress has asked us to do.

"What we can do is then carve out the DREAM Act folks, saying young people who have basically grown up here are Americans that we should welcome. We’re not going to have them grow up under a cloud, under a shadow. But if we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I feel would be very difficult to defend legally."

On Nov. 18, 2014 - two days before Obama announced his immigration program - White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president altered his view on his executive power after conferring with the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security on "what, if any, authority he could use to try to fix some of the problems that House Republicans have refused to address."

The White House argued before the Supreme Court that the 26 states contesting Obama’s program have no legal standing to sue, because immigration policy is the domain of the federal government and that no laws have been broken.

The Obama administration also argued that it merely is setting policies - not establishing laws - on whom to deport. Congress, it said, provides only enough money annually to deport about 400,000 of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The White House says it has focused on using those funds to deport those with criminal violations.

Our ruling

Goodlatte said, "Before taking executive action on immigration, President Obama stated 22 times that he does not have the authority to change immigration laws on his own."

Records offered by Goodlatte and other Republicans show Obama repeatedly has made such statements. But the congressman goes a little off course in trying to quantify the times the president has said so. In a handful of the instances, the president was talking in general terms about executive authority that he did not relate to immigration.

So in the interest of precision, we rate Goodlatte’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, "Goodlatte: Supreme Court must stop President Obama’s lawlessness," April 18, 2016.

Rep. John Boehner, blog post, Nov. 19, 2014.

Email from Beth Breeding, communications director for Goodlatte, April 20, 2016.

The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama remarks, Oct. 14, 2010.

The White House, "Remarks by the president at Univision town hall," March 28, 2011.

ABC News, "Transcript: President Obama’s interview with Univision," Jan. 31, 2013.

YouTube, "President Obama on immigration reform in a Google+ Hangout - Part 1," Feb. 14, 2013.

Noticias Telemundo, "Obama won’t halt deportations for parents of kids brought to the US illegally," Sept. 17, 2013.

The White House, "Press briefing by the press secretary," Nov. 18, 2014.

The New York Times, "Obama immigration plan seems to divide Supreme Court," April 18, 2016.

The Washington Post, "Initial prognosis poor for Obama’s immigration program at Supreme Court," April 18, 2016.

The Washington Post, "Legal decision could resonate most in immigration epicenter of Los Angeles," April 17, 2016.

PolitiFact Virginia, "Goodlatte says Obama has flip-flopped on his power to order immigration reform," Dec. 29, 2014.

PolitiFact Texas, "Greg Abbott says 22 times Barack Obama said he couldn’t shield immigrants, then said, ‘I changed the law,’" Feb. 23, 2015.

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Goodlatte: Obama said 22 times he lacks power to change immigration law

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