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Politics & Government

Immigration Will Be An Early Test Of The Divided Government


Congressional leaders spent a little more than two hours at the White House this afternoon for lunch and a chat with the president. This was the first face-to-face meeting since the midterm elections. Tuesday's results were tough on the president's party as Republicans took control of the Senate and solidified their majority in the House. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports from the White House, an early test of this divided government is likely to be immigration.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Obama and congressional leaders gathered around a big wooden table in the old family dining room.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I want to thank the leadership of both the House and the Senate for being here for this lunch postelection.

KEITH: Reporters were quickly ushered out. And around the time the salad and sea bass were served, protesters calling for Obama to act on immigration had begun marching outside the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, Obama, do not deport my mama. Hey...

KEITH: They carried signs and a giant American flag with chants alternating between English and Spanish.


PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No more deportations. No more deportations.

KEITH: Their message? - President Obama needs to follow through on his promise to take unilateral action on immigration before the end of the year. Gustavo Torres is the head of Casa de Virginia and Maryland, which organized today's protest.

GUSTAVO TORRES: To make sure that the president listens to us because this is the moment that he has. He has a historical opportunity.

KEITH: The president was supposed to act by the end of this summer, but he postponed it. Now he says he'll do it by the end of the year. It is widely thought he'll give legal status and work permits to several million people. Much like the administration did in 2011 with young people known as DREAMers. Torres says he wants the president to make his action as broad as possible to help people now living in fear of deportation.

TORRES: They don't have criminal records. They are people who want to be Americans and they need a chance to be able to.

KEITH: At the same time Obama is getting pressure from immigration activists, he's getting squeezed on the other side by congressional Republicans who say executive action now would destroy any chance of bipartisan cooperation. Even in the bland language of statements released after the lunch, it was clear the president and House Speaker John Boehner exchanged strong words. Boehner's staff said he warned the president against, quote, "executive amnesty." This echoes what Boehner told reporters yesterday.


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: That's why I made it clear - the president, if he continues to go down this path of taking action on his own, he's inviting big trouble.

KEITH: Over the course of the past year, President Obama has had a number of conversations with House Speaker John Boehner on the possibility of the House taking up immigration legislation. The Senate passed up a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill more than a year ago, and the president wanted Boehner to take it up. The conversations between the men were mostly initiated by the president, according to one House aide, who described them as gut checks rather than negotiations. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.


JOSH EARNEST: But those conversations didn't lead to anything in the House, at least with House Republicans.

KEITH: And as a result, Earnest is making the case that the president feels he has no other option than to go it alone. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.