WASHINGTON – When President Barack Obama announced he was looking for ways to ease deportations without going through Congress, Republicans called it a case study in overreach, arguing that it’s Obama – not Republicans – who is undermining prospects for an immigration overhaul by proving he can’t be trusted to enforce the law.
Now as a narrow window opens in which Congress could act, Obama is turning the tables on Republicans. He’s holding off any executive actions on deportation in hopes that Republicans will bear all the blame if that window closes with the nation’s immigration system no closer to being fixed.
It’s an election-year gambit with the potential to backfire: By asking for patience yet again from frustrated immigration activists, Obama is driving up expectations about actions he’ll take if the fight in Congress ultimately fails.
“It’s an audacious strategy,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “But it has some downsides to it, too.”
Two months after Obama commissioned a review of how deportations in America can be more humane, the White House announced Tuesday that Obama had asked his homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, to hold off on releasing the results of that review until August. That’s when lawmakers leave Washington to focus on campaigning ahead of the November elections.
White House officials said the delay is intended to give the GOP as much breathing room as possible to maneuver now that most GOP primaries are over, freeing incumbent Republicans from concerns about challenges from conservatives who oppose an immigration overhaul.
Yet Obama’s allies also hope that by holding off on controversial steps to ease deportations, Democrats can keep the focus squarely on the failure of Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to bring immigration to a vote.
“Giving the Republicans space takes away their final excuse,” said Jim Wallis, president of Christian social justice group Sojourners. “It’s all now focused on John Boehner.”
But Republicans dismissed the notion that Obama’s move makes it easier for Republicans to act on immigration, noting that Obama has only delayed – not removed – the threat that he’ll go over lawmakers’ heads if they don’t act by August.
“It’s completely inappropriate for the president to threaten Congress that he will unconstitutionally act on his own if Congress doesn’t produce a bill to his political liking within his own made-up timeframe,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said.
And if lawmakers stall, Obama will be short on excuses not to take the aggressive executive action on deportations that activists long have demanded.
“Delaying reform may keep the spotlight on Republicans for now, but it ramps up the pressure on [Obama] to not only to take executive action, but to make it big and bold,” said Frank Sharry of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice. “Otherwise, the president will undercut the historic opportunity presented by Republican inaction to once and for all cement the allegiances of immigrant voters in favor of Democrats.”
Laying the blame squarely at Republicans’ feet could motivate dispirited Latino voters, who tend to favor Democrats, in a midterm election in which Obama has warned repeatedly that the biggest hazard for his party is that Democrats won’t show up to vote. At the same time, some immigration groups and Democrats — including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. — have lost patience and already are balking at Obama’s delay.
Most Americans — 55 percent — favor providing a legal way for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, according to a May AP-GfK poll, including 73 percent of Democrats.
The White House believes it’s possible Congress could move on immigration in June or July if Republicans can resolve their internal struggle over letting a bill get to the floor for a vote. Earlier this month, House GOP leaders rejected a narrow, Republican-backed measure that would grant citizenship to immigrants brought here illegally as children if they serve in the military. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., himself facing a tea party primary challenge, and other GOP leaders intervened to block a vote, marking the latest in a string of immigration setbacks.
Johnson has said he was looking at reforms that include changes to the Secure Communities program that hands over people booked for local crimes to federal immigration authorities. But immigration advocates are also pushing Obama to expand his program allowing certain immigrants brought here illegally as youths to stay and work legally.
Advocates want the program expanded at least to include the parents of those immigrant children and say that nothing short of that will suffice.