By Mike Lillis - 05/25/14 06:00 AM EDT
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will huddle with House Democrats next month in a meeting that's sure to focus on potential changes to President Obama’s controversial deportation policies.
Obama has asked Johnson to examine ways the agency can implement those policies “more humanely,” and many Democrats are pressing the administration to scale back deportations in the name of keeping immigrant families intact.
The Homeland Security panel includes several Democrats representing border districts, including Reps. Filemon Vela (Texas) and Beto O'Rourke (Texas), who are members of the liberal chorus urging Obama to rein in deportations by focusing enforcement efforts on violent criminals and others who pose a threat to the country.
Specifically, the Democrats want the president to expand his deferred action program, which allows qualified undocumented residents who came to the country as youngsters to remain and work without fear of deportation, to a broader swath of immigrants.
“If Congress isn't going to do anything, the White House should take action on its own,” Vela told The Hill Thursday.
Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), another border-district Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, is fighting a close reelection contest and has remained largely silent on the question of whether Obama should act unilaterally.
The administration's deportation policies have long been a political headache for Obama, with tensions only increasing as November's elections inch closer.
On one hand, the president faces intense pressure from Democrats and immigrants rights advocates to rein in deportations, not only as a benefit to immigrant families but also to energize Hispanic voters ahead of the midterms. On the other, Obama is still pushing Republicans to take up comprehensive immigration reform this year, and he's been careful to allow Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) the political space to move in that direction.
By sidestepping Congress to expand the deferred action program, Obama would lend ammunition to the conservative critics, including Boehner, who say they're reluctant to reform the immigration system because they simply don't trust the president to implement the changes fairly.
Boehner on Thursday amplified that message, saying Obama's track record implementing the Democrats' 2010 healthcare law has give the Republicans pause.
“When he continues to ignore ObamaCare, his own law, … he reduces the confidence of the American people in his willingness to implement an immigration law the way we would pass it,” Boehner said.
Obama, for his part, appears near the end of his rope when it comes to holding out for House Republicans. During a Chicago fundraiser Thursday night, the president told supporters that reform likely won't happen unless Democrats pick up seats in November, a shift in message suggesting he's losing hope in GOP leaders to act.
“If we do not hang on to the Senate and make gains in the House, we may not get immigration reform done,” he said.
Under increasing pressure from liberal critics, Obama in March ordered Johnson “to do an inventory of the Department’s current [deportation] practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law,” according to a White House statement issued at the time.
The president cited a “deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system,” the statement said.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said he expects Obama to take action if Congress declines to move a reform bill before July. If he doesn't, Honda added, there would be political blowback from the immigrant community.
“People know that he has a path that he can take, and if he doesn't take it, and it's there, and it's an opportune moment … then people will say it should have been taken,” Honda said Thursday. “That's why I think he will [act].”
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) downplayed the influence of Obama's unilateral actions on November's elections, arguing that voters are aware of the Republicans' refusal to bring immigration legislation to the House floor.
Still, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also urging the president to take bold steps on deportations if Congress doesn't act.
“He should do as much as he can without exceeding the scope of his jurisdiction,” Israel said Thursday.