Chasing a faint glimmer of hope for immigration reform, President Obama is holding off on a plan to abandon Congress and enact changes to U.S. deportation policies through the White House.
According to The Washington Post, the White House has ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to wait until after the August recess to release a review of the administration’s enforcement policies. The idea is to give House Speaker John Boehner more breathing room for a final attempt at rallying his reluctant caucus behind a package of immigration measures similar to the Senate’s already-passed bipartisan bill, which would grant legal status to many of the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in America today.
“While the review is ongoing, the president believes there is an opportunity for congressional action this summer and has asked Secretary Johnson to hold on releasing any results from his review while this window for congressional action remains open," the Post quoted an administration official as saying.
Obama's much-anticipated revamp of deportation policies is widely considered a point-of-no-return in the immigration debate. Once the White House takes action on its own, House conservatives are expected to seize on the move to kill immigration legislation this year -- and likely until after Obama leaves office.
Boehner has said for months that he wants to address the issue, but he has also warned that his caucus may be too upset with the Obama administration to bring a bill up for a vote. So far the only immigration legislation related to deportations that the House has voted on this year have been measures demanding stricter enforcement, including an amendment to reverse Obama’s decision to halt deportations for young undocumented immigrants popularly known as DREAMers.
Activists have long demanded Obama change deportation procedures to prevent families from being split apart and to minimize the removal of non-criminal immigration offenders in general. Those demands have grown far louder over the last six months as the House GOP has dragged its feet and protests against deportations have expanded to include hunger strikes outside the White House. Obama has met with a variety of immigration groups in recent weeks as he plots his next move.
One pro-reform organization, United We Dream, immediately denounced the White House's intention to delay action on deportations as unnecessary given the House's intransigence.
“United We Dream is outraged at the president’s decision to halt the deportation review he ordered in March of this year, as he continues cowering before House Republicans who show no real commitment to move immigration reform forward," Lorella Praeli, the group's director of policy and advocacy, said in a statement. "His decision demonstrates his complacency and willingness to deport more than 1,100 people every day and separate countless families, cementing his legacy as the deporter-in-chief."
But other groups had encouraged the delay even as they urged Obama to be ready to act if Congress decisively retreated from reform. Several pro-reform religious and labor organizations, including SEIU and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement on Wednesday calling on Obama to back away from unilateral action for now.
"We believe the president should move cautiously and give the House leadership all of the space they may need to bring legislation to the floor for a vote," the statement read. “Should the House fail to move forward during this window, the administration will have an obligation to use whatever tools are at its disposal under the law to prevent the tragic family break-ups and economic disruption that has become the daily norm."
An array of politicians on both sides of the aisle have predicted that the White House will go its own way at some point between now and August.
“We’ve waited 329 days, we’re willing to wait another six weeks,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters last week. “But at the end of six weeks, if something hasn’t been done, then there’s going to have to be a move made. And it’s too bad we have to do that, because we all know things can be done administratively, but it’s better to change the law.”
While Obama has some leeway to set deportation policy, it would be a far cry from the kind of sweeping changes that Congress could make. The White House can defer deportations for some, as it has already done with DREAMers, but the administration can’t put them on a path to permanent legal status and citizenship without new legislation. The administration also can’t retool the visa system to make it easier for many immigrant workers to enter the country legally, a key part of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, without the help of lawmakers.
The vacuum of leadership from Washington has led state legislatures to try passing their own immigration policies, either to encourage undocumented immigrants to stay or to try and pressure them to leave, but these efforts are also very limited in their impact compared to the Senate’s bill.