WASHINGTON — Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt on Wednesday presented Congress the case against President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, delivering an argument he said should focus on constitutional law and not partisan politics.
Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, Laxalt echoed points made by 26 states in a lawsuit against Obama’s announced programs last fall to offer temporary legal status for more than 4 million undocumented residents.
“On constitutional grounds, on statutory grounds and on due process grounds this executive action contradicts our laws,” said Laxalt, a Republican elected last fall and who last month added Nevada as a plaintiff in the suit against the Obama initiative.
“Ultimately, this lawsuit is about stopping an unconstitutional exercise of executive power and returning this important issue to Congress, where it constitutionally belongs,” he said in testimony.
A federal judge in Texas has blocked the administration from moving forward while courts sort out the case.
“One of my biggest concerns is our Constitution is eroding and the executive branch continues to take more and more power,” Laxalt told lawmakers, “I can’t think of a more clear example of something the Constitution clearly says the Congress is supposed to perform. Congress has debated (immigration), the president did not get the policy he wanted, and now he has decided to do it.”
Laxalt referred to Obama statements from a year ago that he had limited powers to act unilaterally,
“The president knows he cannot do this, he knows our system did not allow him to take these extra steps,” Laxalt said.
Nevada’s top law enforcement official was challenged on that point by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
“I’m surprised to hear the attorney general of a great state confusing political statements with legal statements,” Nadler said. “What’s relevant, and the attorney general should know this, is what the laws are, what the precedents are and what the court decisions are.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., pointed out that Gov. Brian Sandoval disagreed with Laxalt. The attorney general responded that was “much ado about nothing. The governor and I work on many issues every day.”
Laxalt was the lead-off witness at the hearing, alongside three law professors who offered sharply differing views.
“To be constitutional, immigration reform must come about through the normal legislative process. It cannot be accomplished by executive fiat,” said Elizabeth Price Foley of Florida International University School of Law.
One the other hand, Stephen Legomsky, who teaches at Washington University School of Law, said Obama was within his legal authority, a conclusion he said was “shared not only by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, also by the overwhelming majority of our country’s immigration law professors and scholars.
The Republican-called hearing gave GOP lawmakers the opportunity to further criticize the executive actions, with Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., calling them “one of the biggest constitutional power grabs ever by a president.”
But Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said it was being held merely “to vilify the president for taking important and common-sense steps to prioritize the deportation of felons before families.”
The Capitol Hill forum shined a spotlight on Laxalt, who is the son of former Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada and, at 35, the nation’s youngest attorney general.
The issue of immigration is particularly sensitive in Nevada, the state that studies indicate is home to the highest percentage of undocumented immigrants. Immigration advocates have labeled Laxalt the face of anti-immigration in Nevada and have authored petitions calling on him to withdraw Nevada from the lawsuit.
As the hearing ended, an aide to Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., hand-delivered Laxalt a Titus letter arguing the Obama actions will decrease the deficit and increase U.S. productivity. It urged the attorney general to “refocus your efforts to more critical matters facing Nevadans” such as child trafficking, domestic violence and Yucca Mountain.
At several points in the hearing, Laxalt sought to emphasize his intent was legal and not political.
“This lawsuit is not ultimately about immigration,” he said, “Rather it is about the president’s attempt to change the law through unconstitutional executive action.”
Senior Republicans like Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller have sought to strengthen GOP outreach to Latino voters in the Nevada. Both have said they wished Laxalt had conferred with the governor before signing Nevada onto the lawsuit.
“I don’t know if I have any feeling about it,” Sandoval said in an interview Monday concerning Laxalt’s pending appearance on Capitol Hill. “He’s been invited to speak before Congress. It’s a great honor.”
As for potential political impact, Sandoval said: “I have a great relationship with the Latino community in Nevada. I think they can identify with individuals where they stand on immigration.”
Laxalt “is an independently voted member of a constitutional office, and he has a right to push forward on issues he thinks are important,” Heller said Tuesday. “We disagree on the path forward (on immigration). He believes he wants to do it in the courts and I believe I want to do it by legislation.”
“I think the (Latino) community recognizes the difference between myself and the attorney general,” said Heller, who has voted for immigration reform.
“I want to be very careful,” Heller said, “These are good people who work very hard, who believe in what’s important for their families, who want to stay in their homes. I believe in being very respectful to individuals in our state and treating them accordingly.”