Caught between competing political demands over immigration, President Barack Obama will now wait until after the November election to take executive action that could shield millions of immigrants from deportation and ignite a clash over the extent of his presidential authority.
Obama’s decision abandons a pledge he made June 30 to act quickly after summer’s end, and it prompted an immediate and furious backlash from immigration advocates. But in the past several weeks, the pressure for swift measures from pro-immigration groups ran up against fears from Democrats that acting now would energize Republican opposition against vulnerable Senate Democrats
Two White House officials said Obama concluded that circumventing Congress through executive actions on immigration during the campaign would politicize the issue and hurt future efforts to pass a broad overhaul. They said he fully intends to act before the end of the year.
Reflecting the passion behind the threat of deportations, however, immigration advocacy groups that have criticized Republicans for not passing an immigration overhaul instantly turned their anger on Obama.
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, said the decision was “another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community.”
“Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we’ve received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone,” she said.
The White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s decision before it was announced, said Obama made his decision Friday as he returned to Washington from a NATO summit in Wales.
They said Obama called a few allies from Air Force One to inform them of his decision, and that the president made more calls from the White House on Saturday.
Obama went to the White House Rose Garden on June 30 to angrily declare that House Speaker John Boehner had informed him that the Republican-controlled House would not be taking up any measures to overhaul the immigration system. As a result, he said, he had directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to give him recommendations for executive action by the end of summer. Obama also pledged to “adopt those recommendations without further delay.”
By delaying, the White House weighed the benefits of acting now and running the risk of immigration getting blamed for any Democratic losses, especially in the Senate where Democratic control hangs in the balance.
Among those considered most at risk were Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Obama advisers were not convinced that any presidential action would affect the elections. But the officials said the discussions around timing grew more pronounced within the past few weeks.
Ultimately, the advisers drew a lesson from 1994 when Democratic losses were blamed on votes for gun-control legislation, undermining any interest in passing future gun measures.
White House officials said aides realized that if Obama’s immigration action was deemed responsible for Democratic losses this year, it could hurt any attempt to pass a broad overhaul later on.
“We are bitterly disappointed in the president and we are bitterly disappointed in the Senate Democrats,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “We advocates didn’t make the reform promise; we just made the mistake of believing it. The president and Senate Democrats have chosen politics over people, the status quo over solving real problems.”
Republican leaders in Congress also criticized the president, calling his decision a cynical ploy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama’s move amounted to “Washington politics at its worst.”
“What’s so cynical about today’s immigration announcement is that the president isn’t saying he’ll follow the law, he’s just saying he’ll go around the law once it’s too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections,” McConnell said. “This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement on Saturday, said the decision to delay, rather than abandon, the idea of executive action on immigration “smacks of raw politics.”
“Any unilateral action will only further strain the bonds of trust between the White House and the people they are supposed to serve,” Boehner said.
Partisan fighting erupted recently over how to address the increased flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the U.S. border with Mexico. The officials said the White House had not envisioned such a battle when Obama made his pledge June 30.
Since then, the number of minors caught alone illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States has been declining. That decrease and Congress’ absence from Washington during August has taken attention away from the border for now.
Still, the dispute over how to deal with the surge of Central American border crossers threatened to spill over into the larger debate over immigration and the fate of 11 million immigrants in the United States who either entered illegally or overstayed their visas and have been in the U.S. for some time.
The Democratic-led Senate last year passed a broad overhaul of immigration that boosted border security, increased visas for legal immigrants and a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the country.
But the Republican-controlled House balked at acting on any broad measure.
During a news conference Friday in Wales, Obama reiterated his determination to act on his own even as he avoided making a commitment on timing. He also spelled out ambitious objectives for his executive actions.
Obama said that without legislation from Congress, he would take steps to increase border security, upgrade the processing of border crossers and encourage legal immigration. He also said he would offer immigrants who have been illegally in the United States for some time a way to become legal residents, pay taxes, pay a fine and learn English.
By delaying his executive action, Obama increases the pressure for him to take the broadest measures that he believes his authority allows, perhaps freeing a sizable portion of the 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States from the fear of deportation.
“I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of … action by Congress, I’m going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office, because it’s the right thing to do for the country,” he said Friday.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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