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National

Obama To Spell Out Immigration Plans In Prime-Time Address

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is the day that President Obama is going to make his immigration announcement, highly anticipated. He plans to grant temporary relief to immigrants in the country illegally.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An estimated 11.2 million people are here without documents. The president's plan is expected to cover some of them, though not all of them. He will act using his executive authority and without a new law from Congress.

RATH: Tonight, the president delivers a primetime address from the White House. Tomorrow, he talks about immigration at a local Las Vegas high school. That's the same school where he announced his push for an immigration overhaul nearly two years ago, but the political atmosphere today is far more toxic. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The last time he visited Del Sol High School in January of 2013, President Obama was riding high. He'd just been reelected, carrying Nevada and most other swing states. And fixing immigration was near the top of his ambitious second term agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm here today because the time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: The time is now.

HORSLEY: Obama wasn't the only one with big expectations. Union leader and a longtime immigration activist, Eliseo Medina, said the debate was no longer whether reform would pass but when and what the final bill would look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELISEO MEDINA: I think this is a good moment for immigrants. I think this is a good moment for America.

HORSLEY: And at that moment, Vegas bookies would have given immigration reform pretty good odds. Obama had won reelection with more than 70 percent of the fast-growing Latino vote. And political scientist David Damore of UNLV said Republicans knew they had to do better.

DAVID DAMORE: Neither party wants to be looked as the obstacle. So it's - now they're sort of falling over themselves to see who can sort of push the fastest. But obviously the key variable that no one's really talked about so far is what's going to happen in House of Representatives.

HORSLEY: That caveat about the House would prove prescient. Unlike senators and presidential candidates who have to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, most Republican House members represent districts that are overwhelmingly white. Damore warned, for these lawmakers, immigration reform would not be a top priority.

DAMORE: There is a geography to this. And the geography matters for Senate races and it matters for presidential elections, but maybe not so much for House races.

HORSLEY: That would soon become evident. Within five months of the president's Las Vegas speech, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but it hit a dead-end in the GOP controlled House. Pressure grew for the president to stop deportations on his own, but despite gridlock on Capitol Hill, Obama resisted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress then I would do so, but we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition.

STEVE LEGOMSKY: A lot of us, probably including the president himself, wished that he hadn't made that statement. I'm not sure that it was as well-thought out as it should have been.

HORSLEY: Steve Legomsky is an expert on immigration law at Washington University in St. Louis. He and dozens of other academics insist Obama does have the authority to grant temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Past presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have done so. By last summer, Obama was ready to act on his own. He put off taking executive action during the fall campaign to avoid hurting vulnerable Senate Democrats, but most of those Senators lost anyway. And on the day after the Republican's midterm election sweep, Obama said his patience had run out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: What we can't do is just keep on waiting. There's a cost to waiting.

HORSLEY: Angry Republicans, who will soon be the majority in the Senate, insist there's a political cost for the president acting on his own. Here's Texas Republican John Cornyn on the Senate floor yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: One of the saddest parts about what the president is going to do is he will poison the well and make it much, much harder, if not impossible, for us to make serious progress on our broken immigration system.

HORSLEY: Obama says he still wants to see Congress pass an immigration bill, which would potentially go further and be more permanent than the actions he's announcing today. But nearly two years after his last speech in Las Vegas, no one's betting any longer that's going to happen. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.