Seven influential voices shaping the immigration debate

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Even the most ardent immigrant rights advocates are saying it: Reform legislation is dead this year — and for the foreseeable future. 

With that in mind, all eyes have shifted to the White House, where President Obama is weighing unilateral changes to his immigration policies in the face of congressional inaction.

In March, the president asked the Department of Homeland Security to review its approach to deportations in search of blanket ways to conduct them "more humanely."

With the results of that review – and Obama's subsequent policy response – expected next month, both sides of the immigration debate are intensifying their arguments in hopes of swaying Obama's ultimate decision and the public's response to it.

The dynamics in the debate are different from earlier in the year, when legislation was seen as having a realistic chance of moving through Congress.

Back then, the most influential voices were the party leaders, committee heads and special interest lobbyists who would have had a direct hand in crafting a compromise package.

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With the administration now steering the cart, those figures are largely on the sidelines, ceding power instead to the voices at the poles of the debate – both the liberals urging Obama to go big and the Tea Party conservatives lobbing accusations of that the president is pushing "amnesty" programs.

Against that backdrop, here are seven figures who will have out-sized voices as Obama weighs his decision.

 

1) Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)

The Chicago liberal has long-been Congress's loudest proponent of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform package. But when GOP leaders this summer refused to consider anything like that, he transferred his energies to the White House, where he's urging Obama to make sweeping policy changes allowing millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and work without fear of deportation. 

Anticipating that Obama will heed those calls, Gutierrez is already organizing outreach campaigns designed to enroll newly eligible immigrants into whatever new benefit programs might come out of the administration. He thinks that up to 5 million illegal immigrants might be affected. 

“When an announcement comes, we will make sure Chicago is ready," he said Wednesday.

 

2) Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)

If Gutierrez is the face of immigration reform, King is the face of the opposition. The Iowa Republican has, for years, led the conservative rejections of any proposals that would grant illegal immigrants legal status or put them on a pathway to citizenship – provisions he deems "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

Throughout the immigration debate, GOP leaders – hoping to move a bill – have sought to sideline King and other Tea Party conservatives. They haven't succeeded. Indeed, King won a major victory earlier this month when Republican leaders – facing a revolt in their own ranks – were forced to rewrite border-funding legislation when conservatives complained that it wasn't tough enough on enforcement.

The episode has only emboldened King and other conservatives, who are vowing to continue their fight against "amnesty" when Congress returns to Washington in September.

 

3) Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

Sessions, the ranking member of the Budget Committee and among Capitol Hill's staunchest critics of immigration reform legislation, has emerged this summer as something else: a powerful influence over the debate. Indeed, when House GOP leaders were forced to pull their initial border-funding bill last month, several singled out meetings with Sessions as the reason they were bucking their leadership.

Sessions hasn't let up since. In press releases, op-eds and cable news interviews, the Alabama conservative has hammered Obama's response to the border migrant crisis and warned that new executive action would open the country to an increased threat of terrorism. The effect has been to rally the conservative base against Obama's unilateral action, even before he's taken any.

 

4) Jeh Johnson

The DHS secretary is charged with leading his agency's review of the administration's deportation policies, giving him perhaps the loudest voice in the debate over what policy changes, if any, Obama will make with his executive pen. 

Johnson has plenty of experience to draw upon as he weighs how far the agency can go under its current authority. Prior to heading DHS, he helped manage thousands of lawyers working under the Defense Department. And he helped to write the report that eventually led Obama, in 2010, to repeal the Pentagon's long-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Johnson has also been politically savvy enough to keep his findings very close to the vest.

"Nobody seems to know either the what or the when," a Democratic aide said this week.

 

5) Cecilia Munoz

As director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Munoz has been Obama's point-person on immigration reform since she left the National Council of La Raza, an immigrant rights group where she worked for decades, to join the White House in 2009.

It hasn't always been a comfortable ride, as Munoz has been forced to defend Obama in the face of sharp criticism from her former colleagues in the advocacy community who say that the president's deportation policies are too tough. 

Obama's looming decision about whether to soften those policies lends her a clear opportunity to make amends.

 

6) Frank Sharry

For more than two decades, Sharry has been on the front lines of the immigration reform debate, both as head of the  National Immigration Forum and, more recently, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights group. From that perch, Sharry has been a tireless advocate for both comprehensive immigration reform legislation and sweeping unilateral changes to Obama's deportation policy. 

And if he doesn't have a hand in crafting those executive changes, he's making sure he has a hand in marketing them to the public. Indeed, America's Voice has blasted dozens of emails during the recess, many laying out what the group says are the political and practical advantages if Obama goes big. 

Along those lines, Sharry recently organized a press call with legal experts outlining what they said was the legal basis for new executive action that could benefit millions of illegal immigrants. 

 

7) Red-state Senate Democrats

Not all Democrats are crazy about the idea of Obama using his executive pen to rein in deportations. Indeed, a handful of red-state Senate Democrats in the middle of tough races are trying to distance themselves from that prospect, wary that new unilateral actions will only renew conservative accusations that the president is prone to abusing his powers in defiance of both Congress and the law.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is one such lawmaker.

"The best thing would be for Congress to act," she said.

Sen. Mark Begich is another. The Alaska Democrat, who's also in the middle of a tight reelection contest, said that, while the "immigration system is broken and desperately needs an overhaul," he opposes new policies providing "amnesty."

"To me, securing our borders has to be the priority, and that should be the President’s focus," he said in a statement.

With Obama and the Democrats fighting desperately to keep control of the Senate for Obama's final two years, such voices could carry disproportionate weight. The president doesn't want to provide any ammunition to the GOP challengers in those red states.