By Mike Lillis and Justin Sink - 02/22/14 06:00 AM EST
President Obama is coming under fire to do more with his executive power to slow record-level deportations of illegal immigrants now that immigration reform legislation is almost certainly dead until after the election.
But that is a tough call for the president, since it would give ammunition to GOP critics who say they do not trust he will enforce immigration laws.
Obama’s party benefited handsomely in 2012 after Obama sidestepped Congress to halt deportations for some illegal immigrant youngsters. The move helped boost Hispanic turnout at the polls, and Obama carried more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to Pew Research exit polling.
In a midterm election year where Obama is not on the ballot and turnout by Hispanic voters is expected to be lower, however, it is not a sure thing the same kind of tactics will benefit Democrats this year.
Calls for action are nonetheless taking place, with immigration reformers on and off Capitol Hill pressing Obama to expand the 2012 program targeting “Dreamers.”
“They can extend it [for current eligibles]; they can extend it to other people; they can extend it for a longer time. We’d like him to do it [all],” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which backs immigration reform. “Yes, it will be controversial, but only with Republicans.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said recently that he hoped Obama would explore unilateral steps while still prioritizing a legislative package.
“I would hope that administratively, the president will do what he can to take a look at deportations, but he is being burdened by the law as it exists, and we need to change it,” Reid told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week.
Some Democrats acknowledge the move could backfire with Republicans.
“Right now is a sensitive moment,” said a House Democratic aide. “[Acting unilaterally] plays right into their far-fetched narrative about him being an imperial president who doesn’t care about the laws governing the country.”
Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert for the Center for American Progress who has consulted with the White House on policy, says Obama faces a paradox.
“The more he does, the less likely we are to get legislation, which is the goal of both the White House and those on the outside pushing for an end to deportations,” Fitz said. “Everyone understands there has to be a legislative solution. But the more he does administratively, the more challenging that legislative tack becomes.”
Furthermore, Fitz warned that it is not clear that executive action on immigration would move the needle enough in pivotal 2014 swing states and districts.
“I do think it would generate a lot of excitement among progressives, and would certainly energize the Latino electorate and the Asian electorate, but I don’t know if it does enough to change the map,” he said. “What does the immigrant electorate look like in those purple districts and swing district? It’s hard for me to see that this changes things electorally in advance of 2014 elections.”
Obama must work with Republicans while placating intense anxiety from Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists who complain Obama has presided over 2 million deportations — more than any administration in American history.
Obama also needs to make sure that Republican leaders are not simply stringing him along.
While administration officials have said they want to give House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) space to operate on the issue, Democrats worry that Republicans could be stalling until after midterm elections where they are expected to pick up seats in the Senate.
While the Senate passed a bipartisan proposal last summer — and House GOP leaders unveiled a set of reform “principles” last month — the conservative outcry quickly caused Boehner to suspend any plan to bring legislation to the floor. Boehner cited a distrust in Obama as his reason for shelving the issue.
“The American people, including many of my members, don’t trust that the reform that we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be,” Boehner said.
To drive their message home, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have scheduled a hearing Wednesday entitled, “Enforcing the President’s Constitutional Duty to Faithfully Execute the Laws.”
The struggle to strike that balance has been evident in Obama’s approach to executive action.
In the face of similar congressional inaction, Obama took executive steps in 2012 to allow millions of illegal immigrants brought to the country as kids to obtain two-year work visas.
But, addressing the Democratic Caucus this month, Obama pushed back against the notion that he can expand those benefits to a broader population without congressional action. He urged that lawmakers must understand that there are “outer limits to what we can do by executive action.”
In a radio interview Obama granted Univision last Friday, he downplayed his executive authority, calling his 2012 move “just a temporary action.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), among the loudest critics of Obama’s deportation policy, conceded that the president is restrained by House GOP leaders who have shown little appetite for bringing a comprehensive reform bill to the floor.
But the Illinois Democrat also warned that advocates will soon lose patience with the waiting game, and then they will focus their pressure on the White House to act unilaterally.
“The White House and Democrats want to keep the focus on what the Republicans are not doing for as long as possible,” Gutierrez said in an email. “However, in reality, the focus is already shifting in the community, among many advocates and among some Democrats towards the White House and what the president must do to keep families together and stop the indiscriminate deportations.”
Sharry says the focus will shift to Obama as it becomes clear that Republicans will not bend.
“If Congress doesn’t act they’re going to leave him no option. And it’s going to leave the immigration reformers no option — it’s on the president,” he said.
Fitz says that one way Democrats can ratchet up pressure on Republicans in the Senate is by forcing them to vote on the issue of immigration.
“They can start putting Republicans more on the record, begin to show one side is more for reform than the other,” he said. “Those are the kid of pressure tactics we anticipate will occur at some point.”
--This report was updated on Feb. 23 at 2:52 p.m.