WASHINGTON -- The White House is moving into a new phase for its policy on deportation relief for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants: Not just selling it, but going on the offense to protect it.
The House voted on Thursday to block President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. The vote was met with a swift veto threat from the administration. Not long after, White House policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz hosted Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, at the White House, then sent them outside to share their stories with reporters. Administration officials held a call with reporters to decry the House vote -- a telling move for legislation unlikely to reach the president's desk -- and Obama will travel to Nashville, Tennessee, next week to make his third public speech about his actions.
For advocates, the aggressive posture has been reassuring. The Obama administration has been faulted in the past for failing to sell new policies. The president still struggles to convince the public that the health care reform law was a good idea. Early steps taken to protect the immigration executive action suggest that the White House has learned a lesson from legislative battles past.
To date, Obama's favorite talking point when discussing his immigration executive action is that he was forced into it because House Republicans wouldn't vote on immigration reform that passed the Senate. On Thursday, administration officials believe they were given stronger material. Nearly all of the House Republican conference backed the bill introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) to end the president's policy. The vote was meant to underscore opposition to a perceived presidential power grab. But the downside of it is that it provides Democrats and allies with a million-plus individual stories of people whose deportation relief the GOP wants taken away.
In a call with reporters just after the vote concluded, White House made just that point.
"The United States House of Representatives is voting to prioritize breaking up families," a senior administration official said. "The United States House of Representatives has been sitting for over 500 days on a piece of legislation that had wide public support. ... I don't think that any time there's a vote in the United States House of Representatives by the people's elected officials, that it can be treated as symbolic. This has consequences."
The Dreamers who visited the White House highlighted these consequences. Lorella Praeli, the director of advocacy and policy at the advocacy group United We Dream, talked about her mother, who will be helped by the new policy.
"When Republicans and other members of Congress make this personal, when they try to say this is about the president and executive overreach and the Constitution, but it is really an attack on our communities -- on people like Chela Praeli, my mother -- then it becomes a real fight for us," Lorella Praeli said. "We have said to Republicans and to any other member of Congress who decides to vote or who has voted today on this bill to block the President's executive action, bring it on. We are ready."
Praeli said Dreamers would continue to confront politicians to ask whether they want to deport them and their parents, raising the specter of confrontations similar to one in August, when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) saw their highly choreographed lunch disrupted by advocates.
An official with the DREAM Action Coalition, which spearheaded that King-Paul event, said similar actions would be coming in the future.
"We are conscious that we need to protect this win because there is going to be aggressive efforts to push back on it," explained Cesar Vargas, director of the DREAM Action Coalition. "We are going to confront Republican efforts."
Still, Vargas insisted his group wouldn't be a proxy for the White House. Dreamers, he said, would continue pushing the administration, both to expend the executive action and keep up the pressure for comprehensive legislative reform.
"We are a little bit more amicable terms. We are talking with the White House again," said Vargas. "They are sending us emails again. That's good. But I made it clear that we are going to continue to push the president. Maybe not call him 'Deporter in Chief,' but to tell him that we need to continue the job."
That could complicate the administration's efforts to go on the offense. Certainly, Obama, Democrats and advocates have work to do convincing the American public that executive action was a good idea. The policy changes have widespread support from Latino voters, and Obama's approval rating among them jumped after the announcement. But the population at large is divided. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released Thursday found that 50 percent of Americans think Obama was right to act, but 45 percent opposed the move.
And so, unlike the advocacy community and the administration, congressional Democrats have been forced to walk a finer line. At a press conference before the vote on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) spent as much time discussing the need for reform as they did on the opposition to executive action.
The House "is the legislative body that has the ability, if they don’t agree with the president of the United States, to pass a bill," Hoyer said.