Obama's immigration dilemma

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President Obama faces a wrenching dilemma over immigration that has significant implications for the 2014 midterm election and his legacy.

Should he use his executive powers to stop most deportations?

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He is under heavy pressure from pro-immigrant groups to do so. Democratic strategists say such a move would spur turnout among Latino voters.

But such a dramatic gambit could also destroy any chance of legislative compromise with Republicans in 2015.

The president must wrestle with a longer-term question, as well. If he takes only limited executive action this year, he then must decide how much ground he is willing to cede to Republicans next year in order to get legislation to his desk.

If he jettisons the proposal to create a special pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants, he will be accused of pandering to Republicans. But holding firm in pursuit of that liberal goal may destroy the chance of an expansive deal. Under that scenario, Obama would leave office without having achieved the top domestic priority of his second term.

“If the president were to give deferred action to the rest of the undocumented, that would really antagonize Republicans and make it difficult if not impossible that something would happen next year,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a group that favors comprehensive immigration reform.

“If the president is thinking of his legacy, it’s probably better for him to wait a year and see if he can actually work with Republicans in Congress,” he added. “Republicans thinking about 2016 if they win the Senate will want to do something on immigration next year.”

Democratic strategists, however, say Obama needs to do something to rev up Latino voters who are disappointed his 2012 reelection has not yielded reform or slowed the pace of deportations.

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“It would help with Latino voters and we’re in desperate need of higher turnout among Latino voters,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “Right now they could say, ‘Nobody cares about us, nobody is doing anything for us — either party.”

There are some moves Obama could make that amount to a middle ground, of a kind.

Pro-immigrant activists expect Obama to take action to limit cooperation between state and local law enforcement and the federal government on enforcing immigration laws. They also assert he should slow or stop the deportation of illegal immigrants with particularly strong ties to the United States.

Activists say Obama could curtail or end the so-called 287 program, which allows state and local law enforcement to enter into partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to receive authority to enforce immigration laws within their jurisdictions.

“A big concern has been the mission creep of the deputizing of law enforcement to apply immigration laws. There have been a number of voices [raised] in the law enforcement community as to how that’s infringing on their mission of community safety,” said Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro of the National Council of La Raza.

Some Senate Democrats, notably Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), have called on the president to halt deportations of illegal immigrants whose family members are American citizens.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say what steps Obama might take before the election now that immigration reform legislation has been widely pronounced dead in the 113th Congress.

“If we have more steps to announce that the president is willing to take through his executive authority to make progress for middle-class families, we'll keep you posted on that,” he said Thursday.   

While the White House grapples with these questions, activists have become increasingly impatient.

On Friday, United We Dream, a group that supports protections for illegal immigrants, announced plans to occupy House offices to protest congressional inaction.

In March, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, called Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”

“It is now a political issue as opposed to a policy issue, and with the upcoming election he’s going to play to the base. So that means slowing deportation and having an easier policy on children who are here,” said Darrell West, director of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. 

Republicans say any executive order to ease deportations will play into their campaign narrative that Obama has become an imperial president.

“Maybe the administration is feeling a little bit snake-bitten about their overreach. The Supreme Court has ruled against them 12 times,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

Justices on Thursday ruled unanimously against Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, handing the administration its 12th loss before the high court. 

But even if Obama pursues only modest immigration changes through executive action, reining himself in so that he preserves a working relationship with congressional Republicans, he still faces tough choices next year.

He will be eager for a major legislative accomplishment in the final two years of his term especially after 2013 and 2014 failed to produce any notable reforms.

Some Republicans think Obama would be willing to compromise and perhaps back off the Democrats’ demand for a special path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

“If Republicans do win the Congress and they push something next year, the policy proposals are going to be different,” said Aguilar. “The question is will Democrats be flexible enough to work with Republicans or will they continue to say that a path to citizenship is the only way to solve the situation, which is ridiculous.”

But Lake, the Democratic pollster, said Obama would prompt an angry backlash if he agreed to sign narrow reform measures that did not incorporate a citizenship provision.

“There are many aspects of a narrower bill that are actually problematic,” she said. “Just enforcing and increasing deportation, that will hurt us in terms of the Latino vote.”