Whether Congress likes it or not, an immigration overhaul is on the way.
After delaying a promised plan to revamp the nation’s deportation policies amid political pressure, President Obama is on track to move forward after the election and before the end of the year.
Details are still scarce, but The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the White House is considering deferring deportations for undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for a minimum length of time and have family ties to American residents. A senior administration official confirmed the requirements to NBC News and added that the president intended to take as broad action as possible while trying to ensure the changes are on solid enough legal ground to withstand an inevitable challenge.
Millions of undocumented immigrants could potentially be affected by the move, depending on its requirements. Already, the administration has granted temporary legal status and work permits to over 580,000 young undocumented immigrants – commonly known as DREAMers -- through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Obama announced in 2012.
The White House is also considering a suite of tweaks to the legal immigration system that could make it easier for foreign students in America to find work after graduation and free up visa slots for businesses such as tech companies, which rely heavily on legal immigrants to fill high-skill jobs.
Obama is facing intense political pressure from multiple sides as the White House dots its I’s and crosses its T’s on the final plan.
Immigration activists were enraged by the president's decision to punt on announcing executive action after pledging to act by the end of the summer. Some of them have protested Obama’s recent speeches, most recently a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
“She should be protesting the Republicans who are blocking [reform] in Congress,” Obama said at the event after a demonstrator heckled him.
Pro-reform activists are concerned that disillusionment with the delay could depress Democratic turnout in key states like Colorado amid polling showing rising discontent with Democrats among Hispanic voters nationally.
Obama faces political pressure from his right flank as well, however, as any major immigration policy changes will invite a fierce political backlash from Republicans. Many of the most prominent 2014 GOP candidates have spent months running against “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and warning of impending executive action.
Some sitting Republican lawmakers have suggested threatening a government shutdown unless Democrats agree to a budget that defunds a new immigration program. Already, Republicans voted over the summer to strip protections from DREAMers, arguing that it encouraged further illegal immigration.
“We will do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen: defunding, going to court, injunction, you name it,” GOP chairman Reince Priebus told a conservative activist this week. “It’s wrong. It's illegal. And for so many reasons, and just the basic fabric of this country, we can’t allow it to happen and we won’t let it happen.”
It’s unclear how much traction the GOP might get with its arguments. In 2012, the decision to protect DREAMers made barely a political ripple with swing voters, but DREAMers are by far the most sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants since they were primarily brought into the country through no fault of their own. While a wave of Central American minors at the border has subsided since this summer, and the estimated undocumented population has remained stable under Obama, the episode put border issues closer to the forefront of the national debate and exacerbated conservative fears of illegal immigration.
In a Spanish language Op-Ed for Univision on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Zoe Lofgren preemptively defended Obama’s pending immigration decision.
“Although it is ultimately the job of Congress to reform our immigration laws, we nevertheless look forward to the President’s bold and meaningful action to improve the lives of Americans and immigrants alike and advance the interests of our nation,” they wrote.