Obama’s immigration strategy is to give room to House Republicans

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The White House has crafted an explicit strategy when it comes to dealing with House Republicans on immigration: give them space.

Senior administration officials say they want to give Republicans as much breathing room as they need to negotiate a bill in their own divided party and then see what materializes.  

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It’s a delicate balancing act for Obama, who wants to secure an immigration reform law for his presidency and favors a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

He must negotiate that outcome with a House Republican conference that does not trust him, and that worries any law it passes might not be enforced by the president.

It is also a GOP conference that is unlikely to sign on to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. House GOP principles this week include a legal status for the undocumented, but not a path to citizenship.

As a result, officials say Obama won’t go on a barnstorming tour across the country to apply pressure on the issue.

Instead, every three to four weeks, the public might see Obama participating in an Spanish-language television interview or speaking about the issue in a public setting, just as he has done in the past.

Obama and the White House are also being careful with their pronouncements on the GOP principles.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama won’t “prejudge” potential legislation.

Carney noted that Republicans in 2012 talked of illegal immigrants self-deporting, and that the White House is seeing movement on the issue.

“That’s a good thing,” he said, adding that Republicans are at the beginning of the process, “not the end.”

The give-them-room strategy was in full display during the State of the Union address earlier this week. Obama only mentioned the phrase “immigration” three times in a nearly 7,000-word address. He urged lawmakers “serious about economic growth” to “fix our broken immigration system.”

“When people come here to fulfill their dreams—to study, invent, and contribute to our culture—they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone,” Obama said. “So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

The genial tone was palpable to Republicans. One senior GOP leadership aide conceded that “we breathed a sigh of relief when he got through immigration without making it some partisan attack.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) on Friday said Obama’s remarks on immigration in recent weeks have been helpful, though he took exception to a comment Obama made during a web chat in which he suggested executive action on immigration as a possibility.

Republicans are deeply worried that an immigration law could be reinterpreted by Obama. Their fears have been stoked by the healthcare law, in which the White House has chosen to make changes to law without Congress, such as in extending the deadline for the employer insurance mandate.

It is unclear if Speaker John Boehner has personally told Obama to take the give-them-space approach. A senior administration official did not want to disclose details of private conversations. Asked if Boehner had spoken to Obama about the tack, a senior GOP aide replied, “not to my knowledge.”

Some White House allies feel as though Obama needs to apply more pressure. One former senior administration official who had worked on the issue, said the president needs to “use the sticks approach and not the carrot.”

“It’s time to turn up the pressure,” the former senior official said. “The White House needs to go back to November 2012 and realize this is an issue that will sell politically.”

“I worry about giving Republicans too much space to let the naysayers torpedo it,” the former official said.

The former official said based on the Republican principles—issued this week at a caucus retreat—the one pushing “border security first” is “exactly why there needs to be more pressure.

“The argument that there haven’t been border security improvements already and that immigration laws aren’t being enforced simply flies in the face of reality,” the former official.

The former official added that the principle ensuring that no administration can selectively enforce the law is a threat to end “deferred action.”

“This is why they need to be reminded of 2012 and shown much more pressure,” the former official said.

Some immigration groups agree with that sentiment. They say Republicans still have more work to do.

“If this is the way they’re trying to build trust with the Latino community, they have a long way to go,” said Eddie Carmona, the campaign for citizenship manager of PICO National Network. “If we see a piece of legislation by House leadership, then it’s a different story. But they had all of last year to move this fall forward.”

“We would like to see the White House apply pressure,” Carmona added.

But most pro-immigration reform groups have complimented the GOP principles, and seem also to be trying to give Republicans room.

Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, called the Republican principles a “historic breakthrough.”

“It's important that leadership has come out so strongly,” Jacoby said, adding that it appears as though Boehner “really wants to move.”

Jacoby said she agrees with the White House strategy to give Republicans some legroom to work out their issues. 

“If the White House was jamming this down people's throats, it would be dead in the water,” she said.