Obama’s Immigration Options

The president is under increasing pressure to do something on the issue before the midterms. Here are his likely paths.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 15: Students (L-R) Sarait Escorza, 23, Isabelle Vargas, 20, and Maricella Aguilar, 21, block the on ramp of US101 freeway during a demonstration by immigrant students for an end to deportations and urge relief by governmental agencies for those in deportation proceedings on June 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. In a policy change, the Obama administration said it will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children if they meet certain requirements. 
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
April 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

His­pan­ic voters twice helped put Pres­id­ent Obama in the White House, and twice were prom­ised im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Six years in­to Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, Demo­crats’ re­peated blam­ing of Re­pub­lic­an ob­struc­tion­ism has not only lost res­on­ance with act­iv­ists but to some ex­tent has back­fired: As hopes for broad-based le­gis­la­tion have faded, many ad­vocacy groups have giv­en up on Con­gress al­to­geth­er and are now fo­cus­ing their en­er­gies en­tirely on the White House.

Ad­voc­ates are de­mand­ing that gov­ern­ment do something — any­thing — to ad­dress un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants’ de­port­a­tion and de­ten­tion fears. And they’re look­ing squarely at the pres­id­ent.

If Con­gress re­mains stalled on the is­sue, the pres­sure for Obama to act be­fore the midterms will only in­crease. If he does, there are two schools of thought on what that might en­tail.

Groups such as the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Cath­ol­ic Bish­ops are ad­voc­at­ing the more cau­tious strategy: They worry that if Obama goes too far, he will of­fend Re­pub­lic­ans who might someday help pass an im­mig­ra­tion bill.

The bish­ops re­cently sent a let­ter to the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment say­ing it should greatly ex­pand its use of dis­cre­tion to al­low in­di­vidu­al un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to re­main in the coun­try. But the con­fer­ence de­lib­er­ately avoided re­com­mend­ing a blanket ex­pan­sion of Obama’s de­ferred-ac­tion pro­gram for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who were brought in­to the coun­try as chil­dren, for fear that such a move would pois­on any hope of bi­par­tis­an col­lab­or­a­tion down the road.

Re­cent com­ments from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz., buoyed that point of view. “Were Pres­id­ent Obama to choose to ig­nore ex­ist­ing law in or­der to stop leg­al de­port­a­tions, he would only val­id­ate [Re­pub­lic­ans’] con­cerns and fur­ther jeop­ard­ize the pro­spects of im­mig­ra­tion re­form,” he said.

Grass­roots or­gan­iz­a­tions out­side of Wash­ing­ton are press­ing for a far more ag­gress­ive ap­proach. They say Obama should sus­pend de­port­a­tions of all un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who haven’t broken any oth­er laws — and they don’t par­tic­u­larly care wheth­er that would earn the pres­id­ent an im­peach­ment tri­al. In their view, the ad­min­is­tra­tion should stop telling Lati­nos to wait for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion when it can’t de­liv­er.

“Talk­ing about com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form in a Con­gress that has no in­terest in it is a joke,” said Roberto Lovato, cofounder of Presente.org, a left-lean­ing Latino ad­vocacy group. “What do they have to show for them­selves? Two mil­lion de­port­a­tions. Four hun­dred thou­sand im­mig­rant pris­on­ers.”

The Na­tion­al Day Laborer Or­gan­iz­ing Net­work is an­oth­er such group. It is sta­ging protests in more than 40 cit­ies Sat­urday to de­cry the 2 mil­lion de­port­a­tions that have already oc­curred on Obama’s watch. The group is one of the loudest to be pub­licly blam­ing Obama for on­go­ing de­port­a­tions, and it has clashed with oth­er Wash­ing­ton-based im­mig­ra­tion ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions for re­ject­ing the Sen­ate-passed im­mig­ra­tion bill be­cause un­doc­u­mented day laborers would not qual­i­fy to be­come leg­al res­id­ents. The group’s lead­ers re­main un­apo­lo­get­ic. The pres­id­ent “can give im­mig­rants re­lief with the stroke of a pen,” said ND­LON cam­paign or­gan­izer Mar­isa Franco.

That kind of rhet­or­ic doesn’t sit well with the White House, which is still reel­ing from Na­tion­al Coun­cil of La Raza Pres­id­ent Janet Mur­guia’s la­beling of Obama as “de­port­er-in-chief” last month. Yet the pres­id­ent can look for­ward to more of the same if Con­gress hasn’t passed a bill by the end of the sum­mer.

“Yes, we un­der­stand that it’s un­com­fort­able to be faced with the con­sequences of your ac­tions, but we’re not let­ting up,” said NCLR Dir­ect­or of Civic En­gage­ment Clarissa Mar­tinez-De-Castro. “In­ac­tion is our en­emy.”

That may be, but re­gard­less of what act­iv­ists want, Obama won’t act for a few months, at least. He needs to hold out for the long-shot pos­sib­il­ity that Con­gress will pass a law to provide re­lief to some un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants, such as farm­work­ers or par­ents of U.S. cit­izens. The chances of Con­gress ap­prov­ing a small im­mig­ra­tion bill are slim, ac­cord­ing to con­gres­sion­al aides, be­cause such a meas­ure would split con­stitu­en­cies, cre­ate win­ners and losers, and di­vide an already agit­ated im­mig­rant com­munity. Still, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers say they need to give Re­pub­lic­ans a chance to warm to the is­sue after their primary sea­son is over this sum­mer.

But con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats are also lay­ing the ground­work for uni­lat­er­al ac­tion from the White House, us­ing Re­pub­lic­an in­ac­tion as the scape­goat. Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., has pub­licly called for the pres­id­ent to stop de­port­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who would qual­i­fy for a path to cit­izen­ship un­der a Sen­ate-passed bill, as long as the House doesn’t pass its own im­mig­ra­tion bill. House Demo­crat­ic lead­ers are also en­gaged in a cam­paign to force Speak­er John Boehner to bring a Demo­crat­ic-sponsored im­mig­ra­tion bill to the House floor. Al­though the ef­fort is destined to fail, it would help Demo­crats make the case that Re­pub­lic­ans are stalling.

Either way, the ball might fi­nally move, if only a few inches.

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