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. 
Getty Images
Add to Briefcase
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.

×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login