President Obama has directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to delay announcing any changes to deportation enforcement until after the summer, in an effort to give the House one last shot to move reform this year.
That news, first reported by the Associated Press, came after a cohort of influential pro-reform groups said they "strongly urge" the Obama administration to hold off on executive action. "We believe the President should move cautiously and give the House leadership all of the space they may need to bring legislation to the floor for a vote," said the Tuesday statement from groups including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the National Immigration Forum, SEIU, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
But some younger immigration activists, who have been vocal in taking Obama to task on deportations, are strongly opposed to such a delay. United We Dream policy and advocacy director Lorella Praeli said the coalition is "outraged" at the delay, and that Obama "continues cowering before House Republicans who show no real commitment to move immigration reform forward."
"His decision demonstrates his complacency and willingness to deport more than 1,100 people every day and separate countless families, cementing his legacy as the deporter-in-chief," Praeli said in a statement.
The strategy behind the delay creates a space for Republicans to act on reform, without being able to point to Obama taking executive action as killing reform as an out. "The House Republicans are now out of excuses not to pass immigration reform and the ball is in their court," said Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who helped craft the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill. "Supporters of reform have bent over backwards to give the House space to act, and now it's time for them to do so."
It's not all that surprising that Obama would delay such an announcement. The president has previously signaled that there's a window for the House to move on reform. And last week, Senate Democratic leaders set a hard deadline of July 31, the last day of congressional work before August recess, for the House to pass comprehensive reform. After that deadline passes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged executive action. "We waited 329 days; we're willing to wait another six weeks," Reid said.
But waiting six more weeks is something that some advocates say has real-life consequences, and that's time they can't afford.
Obama had directed Johnson back in March to start the review, after pressure from advocates reached a fever-pitch. With lack of congressional action, many became frustrated that the president wasn't doing more to alleviate deportations.
The president had been walking a fine line. If he took strong action, he would be signaling that chances for reform are dead in Congress (or, for Republicans, that he wants to "kill" reform). By pulling back to allow more time, the administration is tempering such a criticism and rallying advocates around a sole target: House Republicans.
Both sides of the debate can't even come to an agreement on the numbers behind Obama's deportation record. Pro-reform activists have maligned Obama as the "deporter-in-chief," with an oft-mentioned 2 million deported figure that mainly includes removals. But Republicans charge that the administration is inflating its deportation figures by counting deportations that weren't counted as such under previous administrations, with removals from the interior having gone down, while those within 100 miles of the border have gone up.
Despite Democrats giving them a handful of weeks to act, House Republican leaders show no indications that they are going to take up immigration reform this summer (they also haven't ruled it out). Majority Leader Eric Cantor has publicly supported citizenship for some undocumented young people and allowing them to enlist in the military to gain legal status, but his primary campaign has been advertising his role in stopping the Senate bill to "give illegal aliens amnesty."
House Speaker John Boehner has continued to insist that a lack of trust in the Obama administration to enforce new immigration laws is what's preventing the House from moving on reform now.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold its first oversight hearing with Johnson in attendance, where executive action will be the focus. "The committee expects Secretary Johnson to answer our questions tomorrow and explain why the administration continues to recklessly disregard our immigration laws," Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement.
Not exactly the sentiments of GOP leaders who are anxious to vote on reform proposals this summer, are they?
This article appears in the May 29, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.