Vulnerable Dems balk at Obama actions

Democratic senators facing tough reelections want to put the brakes on President Obama’s plan to reform the nation’s immigration enforcement system through executive action.

Two of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), say Obama should not act unilaterally to reduce deportations, arguing it’s Congress’s job to change the law.

While the Democratic-led Senate has passed a bipartisan bill, the Republican-controlled House will not. That poses a dilemma for Obama.

Slowing or halting deportations of otherwise law-abiding residents who came to the country illegally could produce a backlash in red states where Obama has low approval numbers. Furthermore, the crisis at the southern U.S. border complicates any move to ease deportation laws.

But not taking executive action could discourage Latino voters, who backed Obama and other Democratic candidates overwhelmingly in the 2012 elections and expect action on immigration reform. 

Many of those voters are upset by the relatively high rate of deportation during Obama’s second term. Earlier this year, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, dubbed Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”

While Latino voters will be crucial to Democrats’ winning the White House in 2016, they are not nearly as much of a factor in this year’s Senate battlegrounds. Except for Colorado, where Hispanics make up more than 20 percent of the population, Latino voters make up a small percentage of states’ electorates.

Hagan said Tuesday that Congress, not the president, has the proper authority to reform the nation’s immigration system.

“I think this is a congressional issue and I encourage Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] in the House to bring up a bill, to vote on a bill for immigration reform so that we can then put it into conference,” she said. “And I do support congressional action over executive action.”

Hagan joined the rest of the Democratic caucus in voting for the Senate’s immigration reform measure last year. She praised the legislation as a “strong, bipartisan bill.”

Pryor agrees with Hagan that Obama should not act unilaterally to change immigration policies.

“I don’t like government by executive order. I just don’t, generally, so I’d have to look and see specifically what he’s proposing and what he’s talking about,” he said. “Overall, I don’t approve of that approach.”

Senate Democratic strategists concede that an executive order slowing deportations could play into the Republican charge that Obama is a “lawless” president and further rev up conservative base voters.

“Politics is a risk business. I can understand Sen. Pryor’s stance on this because that’s an issue that presents a real risk for him in a very tough election,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist.

“The risk of taking action, I think, is very clear. Conservative Democrats particularly in Southern states can have this issue thrown back at them and it can hurt them in their campaigns,” he said.

Devine said Obama must weigh the political risks of inaction, as well.

If Latinos become disenchanted with the Democratic Party over its inability to deliver on campaign promises to reform the nation’s immigration laws, they might not turn out to the polls to elect Democratic candidates in the future.

He said if Obama waits until after the midterm election to make an executive order, he would lose valuable time in his effort to build a lasting alliance with Latinos.

“It’s a tough call. It’s not an easy decision politically. I think that they have to just really sit down and look hard at this,” he said.

Devine said the fast growth of the Latino population combined with their solid support for Democrats could swing the political orientation of states such as Texas that now tend to vote for Republicans.

“They’ve got to think about those consequences for the Democratic Party for the long term,” he said, adding that the lack of executive action “may stop the movement of a group that is moving decisively toward the Democratic Party.”

Throughout his first term, Obama promised repeatedly he would sign an immigration reform bill into law. But in 2009 and 2010, Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t make it a priority as they pursued healthcare reform and climate change.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking member of the Democratic leadership team, said Obama should ease deportations as soon as possible.

“The sooner the better. I hope he does it soon,” said Durbin.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called on Obama earlier this year to halt the deportation of illegal immigrants whose immediate family members are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.  

He said Obama should act now that it has become clear the House will not schedule a vote on immigration reform.

“Once the Republicans made it clear in the House that they were not going to have a vote on immigration reform, I think that was the trigger moment and so I would urge him to do it sooner rather than later,” he said.

Menendez said what he is calling for is “totally different” from the question of what to do with unaccompanied minors from Central America who have surged across the Texas border seeking asylum.

A growing chorus of House Democrats is urging Obama to go big as he considers executive steps to rein in deportations.

“We believe that [Obama] has the power and the authority to be broad, to be generous with the immigrant community, and that he should be as broad and as generous in the use of his presidential authority as Republicans have been small and mean-minded,” Gutierrez said Tuesday.

Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) met with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last Friday to promote a list of actions they say the administration can take unilaterally to rein in deportations and keep immigrant families together — the same six-page inventory they presented to Johnson in April and to Obama earlier this month.

Gutierrez on Tuesday highlighted several provisions from the list the Democrats want Obama to prioritize, including a move to halt deportations for the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants eligible to remain in the country legally under the reform legislation passed by the Senate last summer. The lawmakers are also pushing Obama to expand the “parole in place” program, allowing relatives of U.S. citizens in the country illegally to seek permanent residency without having to leave the country first.

Leaders of the Asian and Pacific American Caucus have delivered similar recommendations.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s subpanel on Immigration and Border Security, joined the CHC in Friday’s meeting with Johnson. She said the Democrats made their case, and now the decisions are in the administration’s hands.

“We laid out the law and the precedents, but it’s their decision what to do,” Lofgren said. “They’re not reporting it to us.” 

Mike Lillis contributed.