Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced late Friday that the Sunshine State would join a federal lawsuit to block President Barack Obama’s executive action sparing as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Of the 18 states now suing the Obama administration over immigration, all have Republican governors or Republican attorneys general. But Florida is the only major swing state with a significant Hispanic population, making Bondi’s decision a potential presidential campaign issue as the 2016 election cycle gets underway.
In a written statement, Bondi said the lawsuit isn’t about politics, it’s about Obama circumventing Congress and acting alone.
“This lawsuit is not about immigration. Rather, this lawsuit is about President Obama — yet again — overstepping the power granted to him by our United States Constitution,” Bondi said, echoing the language of the suit initiated this week by Texas Attorney General and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott.
“We need to fix our system of immigration,” Bondi said, “but willfully turning a blind eye to the inconvenience of law and rule is not the path to a remedy, but a prescription for unwarranted presidential overreach.”
Democrats say Bondi is leading Republicans into a problem with Hispanics that has vexed them in recent presidential elections and threatens to do so again.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has stayed out of the fray, and referred questions to Bondi’s office.
Florida’s announcement to join the suit comes a day after lawmakers in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, joined by a handful of conservative-leaning Democrats, voted to block Obama’s action. Miami-Dade’s two Republican members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, joined most Democrats in voting against the GOP plan.
The ceremonial action, dead in the U.S. Senate and just as unlikely to get Obama’s signature, underscored how House Republicans have blocked bipartisan immigration reform, which passed the U.S. Senate with the help of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
The lawsuit argues that Obama’s unilateral decision violated two separate federal laws by sidestepping Congress: the Administrative Procedures Act and the clause of the U.S. Constitution that requires the president to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
Obama and Democrats argue that he has the executive authority to prioritize deportations and stop them for certain types of undocumented immigrants. In announcing the plan last month, Obama pointed out that Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush issued similar — though smaller — orders.
In this case, Obama said those eligible are unlawful immigrants who have been in the country for five years, have not committed serious crimes and who were the parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Obama also expanded a 2012 law called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that allows young people brought to this country illegally by their parents to stay in the United States and get work permits.
While Obama’s actions went too far for Republicans, for immigration advocates they didn’t go far enough.
After announcing his plan, Obama was heckled in Chicago by activists, prompting the president to say, “What you’re not paying attention to is, I just took an action to change the law.”
The federal lawsuit references that comment because, the states argue, it shows Obama didn’t just prioritize deportations; he changed the law. The White House later tried to walk back the president’s statement when a spokesman said Obama was just “speaking colloquially.”
But on numerous other occasions in prior years, Obama once voiced the same opinion as his Republican critics. Obama said he and Congress needed to act on immigration reform because he couldn’t, by himself, just stop deportations en masse.
Those comments are also cited in the lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The lawsuit, filed in a conservative Texas court that has ruled against the Obama administration in another immigration case, says Obama’s statements all show he has essentially made law without Congress’ approval.
“The powers granted to the President are expressly laid out in the United States Constitution, yet President Obama has decided to ignore those parameters,” Bondi said.
Florida’s Democratic Party chairwoman, Allison Tant, said in a written statement that Bondi’s decision to join the suit was a sign that “she puts her partisan political agenda above what’s right for Floridians. It’s no surprise that Bondi would join a politically motivated lawsuit that seeks to ensure the deportation of millions of immigrants and tear apart families.”
Rubio, who has taken staked out various positions on immigration, points out that he has long had one goal in mind: to pass meaningful legislation.
As for Bondi’s lawsuit, Rubio said, it shouldn’t hurt Republicans in the political arena as long as they act on immigration and point out that Obama is bypassing the Constitution.
“The precedent the president set is horrifying,” Rubio said. “I believe that the president’s decision really stretches his constitutional powers, and you can make a very compelling argument that it violates it.”
Like Bondi and even Obama, Rubio says the Congress needs to act. But, Rubio said, passing one big immigration bill is no longer feasible, so Congress should pass smaller, more-targeted pieces of legislation.
“Our reaction needs to be what we should be doing anyway, which is passing immigration reform, beginning with getting illegal immigration under control,” he said. “Then we modernize the legal system, and then we deal with the people who are here illegally in a reasonable but responsible way. We’ve got to deal with it all of it. But we’ve got to deal with it in those steps. And it will take a couple of years.”