LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama opened up a campaign for his executive actions on immigration yesterday as he told an audience of mostly Latino students at a high-school rally here that Congress needs to revamp what he called the nation’s broken immigration system.
It was the same Las Vegas suburban high school where nearly two years ago Obama laid out principles that eventually became the core of a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013, helped along by Republican worries that they were rapidly losing traction in states like Nevada, where Latino voters are among the fastest-growing constituency.
After Republicans in the House blocked action on the Senate bill and refused to pass their own, Obama eventually lost faith in a legislative approach. Yesterday, a day after announcing his executive action on immigration in a speech to the nation, the president said he had no choice but to use the power of his office to shield up to 5 million immigrants from deportation.
“It has now been 512 days — a year and a half in which the only thing standing in the way of that bipartisan bill and my desk, so I can sign the bill, is a simple yes or no vote in the House of Representatives,” Obama told an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,600 people in the school gymnasium.
The president said he had urged House Speaker John Boehner to let the Senate bill come to a vote on the floor of the House, but to no avail.
“I cajoled and I called and I met,” Obama said. “I told John Boehner: ‘I’ll wash your car. I’ll walk your dog. Whatever you needed to do. Just call the bill.’ And he didn’t do it.”
White House aides called the trip back to Del Sol High School an example of political “symmetry.” They said the president was eager to return to declare that he had made good — at least in part — on the promise he made on his earlier visit there, in January 2013.
As an indication that the president’s action falls short of what he and activists have long sought, Obama was interrupted during his speech by an activist who appeared to yell that not all undocumented immigrants would be helped under the action Obama announced on Thursday.
“I heard you, and what I’m telling you is, we’re still going to have to pass a bill,” Obama said. “What I’m saying is, this is just a first step.”
Across the country, Obama’s critics began searching for ways to block his action. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, an ardent opponent of immigration, accused the president of granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants and filed a lawsuit seeking “to have the president and the other defendants obey the U.S. Constitution, which prevents this executive order from having been issued in the first place.”
In Oklahoma, Attorney General Scott Pruitt promised to file a similar lawsuit. In a statement, he called the president’s executive action “ill-advised, unworkable, unlawful and brazenly political.”
“The American people are not stupid, and can see right through this blatantly political power grab on the part of the president,” Pruitt said.
Traveling on Air Force One from Washington, Obama’s top aides released a letter from 10 legal scholars who wrote that the president’s actions were proper.