The Obama administration has a major decision to make regarding its approach to deportations. And whatever it does after a new Homeland Security Department review will signal the political prospects of a complete immigration overhaul.
After months of pressure from advocates wanting greater protections for undocumented immigrants, President Obama asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct, as the White House put it, "an inventory of the department's current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law." Johnson will meet with congressional advocates this week, the first step in a process that could result in reforms that would change how deportation is prioritized.
Politically, Obama is in a Catch-22. If he does too much to curb enforcement, he runs the risk of making it tougher for Republicans to back comprehensive immigration reform. But his administration has overseen a record number of deportations, so if he doesn't do enough, he could alienate reform advocates and Hispanic voters--among whom his approval ratings have plummeted.
"If the president were to take very strong executive action ... he would be completely writing off immigration reform until 2016," says Theresa Cardinal Brown, the immigration policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "I would have a hard time seeing how Republicans move forward with reform in that atmosphere."
While the GOP has its own political reasons for examining reform, Republicans are already far from eager to act on immigration as things stand now, particularly in a midterm-election year. The Republican National Committee's post-2012 election "autopsy" report took a rare policy stance, declaring that the GOP "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" for the future of the party. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says he still stands by that statement but adds that "comprehensive immigration reform" means something different to everybody. Instead, he is urging Republicans to conduct outreach to the Hispanic community.
Given that halting political landscape, many advocates want the president to do what he can now. Obama increased protections in 2012 when he enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which suspends deportation proceedings and provides temporary work authorization for "dreamers." While that was a welcome step for advocates, many now want that protection extended to include the parents of dreamers or U.S. citizens.
Republicans are already charging Obama with overstepping his constitutional authority. This month, the House passed the Enforce Act, which would let Congress sue the president for failing to uphold particular federal laws, such as immigration. House Speaker John Boehner has said he's still committed to reform but that lack of trust with Obama is holding things up.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who backs reform, said drastic executive action on halting deportations "would be a signal that the president wants to kill immigration reform."
"There are some who are looking for any excuse not to move forward on immigration reform, absolutely," Diaz-Balart said. But "for a number of other folks who generally want to get it done ... it is an additional issue. You cannot minimize the impact of the president's lack of credibility."
Many advocates reject the premise that sweeping executive action means reform is dead this year; rather, they say, it's the president's job to examine his administration's policies.
"The immigration system is totally broken, and we're at a point of urgency of getting something done," says Greg Chen, advocacy director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "So AILA is exploring every possible tool, whether it's congressional or [via] the administration, as long as it's within the boundaries of the law and makes for good policy," he said.
Obama has previously said that any executive action to halt all deportations would be illegal. Some of the changes now under consideration, the Los Angeles Times reports, include prioritizing the deportation of undocumented immigrants with prior criminal convictions who pose a threat to public safety; effectively halting deportations of those with no criminal convictions other than immigration violations; and cutting back on the detention of such "low-priority" undocumented people in jails.
Legislation is the only way to create a permanent change, because any kind of executive action would obviously be temporary--"stanching the blood flow," as the Bipartisan Policy Center's Brown puts it.
Even though advocates on the left intend to continue pressuring Republicans, who they believe are holding up reform, they also want relief for undocumented immigrants. Thus they believe that Obama will eventually have to do something more than what's already in place.
"At some point, this summer or later this spring, the prospects of Republicans actually doing something won't pass the laugh test," said a House Democratic aide. "And the president is in much freer position to do something that needs to be done."