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Immigration reformers split over White House delay

As the White House debates whether to announce major executive action on immigration before November, supporters of reform are torn over a potential delay.
President Obama departs Washington for a trip to Estonia and Wales
U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White House in Washington on Sept. 2, 2014.

As the White House debates whether to go forward with major executive action on immigration, supporters of reform are torn over whether to accept a potential delay until after the midterm elections. 

President Obama said in June that he would take unilateral steps to revamp the immigration system by the end of the summer. Recently, however, he said that the administration’s ongoing efforts to deal with a wave of Central America minors at the border could alter his timeline.

"There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer, there is the chance that it could be after the summer," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday.

The prospect of a delay sparked an outcry among prominent immigration leaders. In a press call Wednesday, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez joined activists from America’s Voice, United We Dream, and the National Council of La Raza to demand in no uncertain terms that Obama follow through on an earlier pledge to act on immigration before summer’s end.

“It’s not just one more delayed promise,” Lorella Praeli, director of policy and advocacy for United We Dream, told reporters. “It means people like my mother and millions more will continue to be vulnerable to deportation.”

Not everyone in the pro-reform camp is so gung ho on immediate action, however. A number of activists, commentators and officials are concerned that by sticking to the summer schedule, Obama could drag down Democratic senators facing tough races in November – all of whom voted for comprehensive reform last year.

Colorado is the only state that has both a competitive Senate contest and a large pool of Latino voters, limiting the political upside on the other end.

“The immigrant community has had a very good run of elections breaking their way in terms of making a direct impact,” one activist told msnbc. “This cycle may not be the case.”

Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Democratic candidates Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Lundergran Grimes in Kentucky have all publicly broken with the president on the need for executive action. Privately, aides to vulnerable senators have expressed concern to leadership about the issue, which they fear might hand their opponents a political cudgel in the final stretch.

“Having Republicans capture the Senate and maintain the House, which seems likely, would be pretty much a disaster for immigration reform,” Fernando Espuelas, a radio host for Univision, told msnbc. “North Carolina looks like a tie right now, will it become a loss for Democrats? Will Louisiana be the same? I worry about that.”

The 2014 map creates pitfalls for reformers as a result.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that immigration reform is all upside for Democrats. Obama's decision in 2012 to halt deportations for DREAMers -- young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- energized Democrats and Latino voters with seemingly no corresponding damage among independents or conservatives. That calculus could change this year if Obama goes big and protects millions from deportation and Democrats go on to lose the Senate. At that point, politicians in both parties might grow more cautious in their approach, which could reduce the clout of the same immigration advocacy groups pushing for immediate executive action.

Already, reformers have had to deal with a similar situation in the Republican primaries. After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary in Virginia, advocates rushed to reassure nervous Republicans that the upset was unrelated to Cantor's weak feints toward reform. The House GOP has swung even further to the right on the issue since then, recently voting to deport DREAMers -- immigratnts brought to the U.S. as children.

The political environment around immigration has also changed in recent months. Obama’s poll numbers on the issue have hit new lows since the Central American border issue emerged. Just 31% of Americans approve of his immigration policy versus 61% who disapprove, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. That finding is in line with other surveys from CBS News and the Associated Press. A Gallup poll last month also found that rank-and-file Republican voters, after previously showing little interest in immigration, now list it as a top priority.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist NDN/New Policy Institute, told msnbc he supports executive action but is unsure about the timing given Obama’s ongoing struggles.

“There is a legitimate argument that given how crowded and volatile the agenda is right now – ISIS, Ukraine, migrant crisis, coming budget fights, etc. – that it would be better for the President to wait until after the election when he will be able to dedicate a few days to selling his changes to the public in a far less crowded and charged environment,” Rosenberg said.

There may be some wiggle room to find a compromise. Any new executive action from the White House to protect undocumented immigrants would likely take time to implement. One idea bouncing around among activists is that the administration might reassure them that the schedule for implementing executive action is unchanged even if the announcement date has been moved.

The short-term political case for acting in September versus November is more complicated. In a political bank shot, some activists argue that executive action could benefit Democrats by enraging Republican lawmakers so much that they try and shut down the government or raise the prospect of impeachment.

 “[The White House] may figure that the Democratic voter backlash to the Republican backlash to the President’s announcement might actually mobilize Democrats who might otherwise have stayed home,” Frank Sharry, president of America’s Voice, told msnbc.

In the long term, Gutierrez warned that a delay could appear cynical to Latino voters and breed mistrust.   

“Let’s not use them politically and exploit them one day politically and another day shun them politically,” he said.

Another concern is that by waiting to act until after the election, Obama would send the signal that the White House had snuck a major policy change past voters without giving them a chance to weigh in.

“It is better that the president make the decision now clearly before the American public in a transparent manner before the election,” Gutierrez said. 

In the meantime, it’s a frustrating period of limbo for the White House and immigration activists. After starting the year united in their efforts to pass immigration reform with House Republicans, they’re ending it engaged in an increasingly biter standoff while the House Republicans remain largely safe from any consequences for their inaction.