Durbin: President Should Use His Executive Authority To Fix Broken Immigration System

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Following a letter from Senate Democratic leadership to President Obama supporting executive authority to improve the immigration system, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) took to the Senate Floor this morning to discuss the importance of immigration reform. Due to Republican refusal to consider the Senate bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill – which passed over a year ago in the Senate – and bring it to the House Floor for a vote, Durbin urged the President to use his legal authority to reform our broken immigration system.

“By refusing to take responsibility for fixing our broken immigration system, the House Republicans have left President Obama with no choice.  For the good of the American people, the President must use his authority under current law to do what he can to fix our broken immigration system,” Durbin said.

Video of Durbin’s remarks will be available shortly here.


Audio of Durbin’s remarks is available here.


Footage of Durbin remarks is available for TV Stations using FTP in high definition here and in standard definition here.

Senator Durbin’s remarks as prepared for delivery are available below:


Statement of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin

Assistant Majority Leader

Executive Action on Immigration

November 19, 2014


I rise to speak about the need for the President to use his executive authority to fix our broken immigration system.

We are in the closing days of the 113th Congress.  It is a sad reality that – due to obstruction from the other side of the Capitol – this Congress has not been able to accomplish as much as we should have for the American people.

One of the most hopeful moments of the last two years was June 27, 2013.  On that day, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation on a strong bipartisan 68-32 vote.

I was proud to be part of the “Gang of 8” Democrats and Republicans who spent months negotiating and drafting this bill.  The Senate bill would fix our broken immigration system.  And the independent Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate bill would reduce the deficit by more than $800 billion over the next two decades.  The Senate bill would:

  • Strengthen border security;
  • Require businesses to electronically verify that all employees are legal;
  • Reform our legal immigration system; and
  • Create a tough but fair path to citizenship that requires undocumented immigrants to register with the government, pass a background check, pay a fine and taxes, learn English, go to the back of line behind legal immigrants, and work towards citizenship over time.

The Senate bill includes one provision that is especially important to me.  It was thirteen years ago that I first introduced the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrant students who came to the United States as children to earn their citizenship by attending college or serving in the military.  These young people are the future doctors, engineers, soldiers, and teachers who will make America stronger.  We should not squander their talents by deporting them to countries they barely remember. 

I’m sorry to say that one of the Senate’s proudest moments – passing this immigration reform bill – has become the 114th Congress’s biggest missed opportunity.  For the last year and a half, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has refused to allow a vote on the Senate’s immigration reform bill.  If Speaker Boehner brought our bill to the floor, it would pass with a strong bipartisan majority and the President would sign it into law.

Instead, the House Republicans have only considered extreme legislation like an amendment authored by Congressman Steve King of Iowa, which would require the government to deport the talented young immigrants who are eligible for the DREAM Act.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration is in an impossible position – enforcing broken immigration laws that hurt our economy and our national security, and tear families apart.

Some Congressional Republicans have argued that President Obama should delay using his legal authority to improve our immigration system so that they can have yet another chance to pass immigration legislation.  But the American people have already waited too long for immigration reform – and Congressional Republicans have already missed too many opportunities. 

For the past decade, I’ve been involved in several efforts to pass bipartisan immigration reform legislation.  Every time, we’ve been stopped by Republican opposition.  I will never forget the Republican filibusters that stopped us from passing the DREAM Act, not once, but twice – in 2007 and 2010 – even though a bipartisan majority of Senators supported the bill.

By refusing to take responsibility for fixing our broken immigration system, the House Republicans have left President Obama with no choice.  For the good of the American people, the President must use his authority under current law to do what he can to fix our broken immigration system.

In response to Congress’s failure to act, the President has already taken one important step to reform our immigration system.  After a Republican filibuster of the DREAM Act, President Obama announced he would use his legal authority to halt the deportations of Dreamers, immigrant students who grew up in our country.

This is not an amnesty.  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – known as “DACA” – simply puts a hold on the deportations of these young people and allows them to live and work legally in America on a temporary basis.  Individuals who receive this “deferred action” are not granted permanent legal status or citizenship – only Congress can do that.

DACA has unleashed the potential of Dreamers to contribute more fully to our country.  Many DACA recipients are already giving back to the country they call home by working as engineers, nurses, architects, and teachers.  And the Center for American Progress and the Partnership for a New American Economy have concluded that giving legal status to Dreamers will add $329 billion to our economy and create 1.4 million new jobs by 2030. 


Since the House Republicans refuse to consider comprehensive immigration reform, it is time to build on the DACA’s success by offering “deferred action” to other immigrants who have been living and working in our country for years and who do not pose any threat to our safety.  Expanding deferred action will make us safer by bringing millions of immigrants out of the shadows to register with the government and undergo rigorous law enforcement and national security background checks. 

This deportation relief will also help our economy and American workers.  I have heard some Republicans claim that President Obama is bringing foreign workers into the labor force to compete with Americans.  Let’s be clear.  The reality is that undocumented immigrants are already part of the workforce.  But they are working illegally, which undercuts wages and working conditions for American workers.  By bringing undocumented workers into the legal workforce, we will eliminate the unfair competition of the underground economy.  And all of these workers will be paying payroll taxes, which will increase tax revenues by billions of dollars every year. 

Expanding DACA is also a smart and realistic approach to enforcing our immigration laws.  There are millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.  It would take billions of dollars to deport all of them.  So every Administration has to set priorities about which people to deport – and not deport.

The government should not waste its limited resources to deport immigrants who have lived and worked here for years and don’t pose a threat to our safety.  Instead, this Administration has established a deportation policy that makes it the top priority to deport those who have committed serious crimes or are a threat to public safety.  Isn’t that where our focus should be?

Executive action on deportations is clearly lawful.  Throughout our history, the government has decided who to prosecute – and who not to prosecute – based on law enforcement priorities and available resources.  Past administrations –Democratic and Republican – have stopped the deportations of low-priority cases.  Every President since Dwight Eisenhower has used his executive authority to improve our immigration system.  For example, President George H.W. Bush issued a “family fairness” policy that allowed 1.5 million people to apply for “deferred action” and work permits.

And the Supreme Court has affirmed that the federal government has broad authority to decide who to deport.  The Court has held that, quote, “an agency’s decision not to prosecute or enforce … is a decision generally committed to an agency’s absolute discretion.  And listen to what Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion for the Court striking down Arizona’s controversial immigration law:

“A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials. … Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime.”

Justice Kennedy is right.  President Obama is acting well within his legal authority when he establishes policies about who will – and will not – be deported by his Administration.

It is important to understand the human consequences of our immigration policies.  That’s why, for the last few years, I have regularly come to the floor of the Senate to tell the stories of Dreamers – the immigrant students who would be eligible for the DREAM Act.  And recently, I have begun telling the stories of the parents of these Dreamers.  These are the people who risked everything to bring their children to America in order to give them a better life.

Many of my colleagues have heard me tell the story of Tereza Lee, the student who inspired me to introduce the DREAM Act 13 years ago.  Today – for the first time – I want to tell you about Tereza’s parents.

Tereza’s parents – Joon and Seong Lee – grew up in South Korea in the turbulent aftermath of the Korean War.  With dreams of becoming American citizens, Tereza’s parents sold their family land and left South Korea.  When Tereza was two years old, the Lee family settled in Chicago, Illinois.

After finishing divinity school, Tereza’s father worked as a minister.  For years, he tried to obtain a religious worker visa, but he was unsuccessful due to technicalities in the law.  Tereza’s mother, Seong, started a dry cleaning business in Chicago.  She worked long hours, six days a week, and still the Lee family struggled to make ends meet.

Tereza’s parents placed a high priority on education and Tereza was an outstanding student.  Tereza also had a special gift.  She was a piano prodigy.  When she was seven years old, she began playing on a piano donated to her father’s congregation.

She won a number of piano competitions and received a scholarship to attend the Merit School of Music in Chicago.  When she was 17, Tereza appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  

Ann Monaco, Tereza’s music teacher, called my office to ask for help with Tereza’s immigration status.  We contacted immigration services and they told us there was only one option:  Tereza would have to leave the United States.  That’s when I began to work on the DREAM Act.

Thanks to private scholarships and support from her community, Tereza went on to obtain her BA and Masters Degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.  In 2009, she played her debut at Carnegie Hall.  Today, she is teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and pursuing her Doctorate in Musical Arts. 

Tereza met her husband Danny, who plays the trombone, at the Manhattan School of Music.  They married a few years ago and Tereza became a U.S. citizen in December 2010. 

In July, Tereza and Danny welcomed their first child, Tony.  Unfortunately, Tereza’s father never met his first grandchild.  A few years ago, Joon became ill, due to complications from diabetes.  Because of his immigration status, he didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford medical treatment.  As a result, his kidneys rapidly failed and he passed away at the age of 49.

Tereza’s younger brother, a U.S. citizen, was finally able to sponsor his mother for citizenship when he turned 21.  After many years of raising her children while fearing she could be deported at any time, Seong now has a green card and is studying for her citizenship test.

In a letter to me, Tereza wrote:  “I hope our stories can play some part in the furthering the cause of immigration reform, so that other families will not have to live in the shadows as ours did.”

There are millions of undocumented immigrants like Joon and Seong Lee in the United States.  They are hard-working men and women with the courage to leave behind everything they know to build a new and better life for themselves and their children.

In many ways, they are already part of the American family.  They worship in our churches, synagogues and mosques.  They have strong family values and they contribute to our economy by working hard in difficult jobs.  They serve our food, clean our homes, and care for our children and parents.

And they raise children like Tereza Lee who make great contributions to our country.

They yearn to be Americans, but under current law there is no way for them to get in line and legalize their immigration status.  Instead, many are deported because of our outdated immigration laws.

I ask my colleagues who are critical of President Obama using his legal authority to establish a new deportation policy:  Would you prefer that our government deported Tereza Lee and her parents back to South Korea? 

The American people want their government to solve problems.  Because the House Republican leadership has failed to reform our immigration system, the President has no choice but use his authority under the law to improve our economy and security, and to protect people like Tereza Lee and her family from deportation.