Bowing to political concerns, President Obama will not announce any plans to take executive action to change immigration policy until after the November elections, despite promising in June he would act before the end of summer.
White House officials began informing lawmakers and advocacy groups of the decision, with calls going out late Friday and continuing into Saturday morning, according to several people familiar with the decision.
The decision comes just a few days after Obama hinted that he might delay a decision as he continues to call on Congress to take steps to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Senate Democrats have warned that any bold executive action ran the risk of upending the chances of several Democratic incumbents running for reelection in southern states, where Obama is unpopular and the issue of immigration reform isn't as urgent. Republicans must win six seats to take control of the Senate.
In an interview set to air Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama defended his decision to wait.
"When I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable,” Obama said in a clip from the interview released Saturday afternoon. "What I'm saying is that I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country. But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children [on the southern border], and why it's necessary."
A White House official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, also defended the decision. "The reality the president has had to weigh is that we’re in the midst of the political season and because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections."
Republicans, who have vehemently denounced the president's plans to take executive action, quickly declared the delay a result of cold political calculation.
"There is a never a right time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement, "but the decision to simply delay this deeply-controversial and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action until after the election - instead of abandoning the idea altogether - smacks of raw politics."
The decision is likely to infuriate many Democrats who have said Obama taking executive action before the elections could embolden Democratic base voters to turn out in key elections. And it definitely will infuriate members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who have been pressuring Obama to take action since he took office in 2009.
There are more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States and how to deal with them has been the crux of the disagreement between the parties in Washington. Democrats and some Republicans support offering them a path to legal status, and potentially citizenship, but most of the GOP has refused to support such proposals.
The Obama administration championed a push for comprehensive immigration reform last year that produced a bipartisan bill in the Senate. But the effort collapsed after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told the president in June that the lower chamber would not take up the issue.
In a Rose Garden statement June 30, Obama said he had given up on congressional action and had instructed top aides to deliver recommendations to him about what steps he could take to remake border control policies on his own.
"If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours," the president said that day. "I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay."
Among the actions the president was considering was a move to defer the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens and who have lived in the country many years.
But the peril of making such a move just weeks before a crucial midterm election did not just center on the particulars of the immigration issue itself. Democrats worried that it also would feed the Republican storyline that Obama is an overreaching executive--something they have also argued about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
And of all the states where Senate seats are in play this fall, Colorado--which has a sizable Hispanic population--was the only one where Democrats believed executive action could work to their candidate's benefit, rather than damage their prospects.
In a statement Saturday, Mary Kay Henry, head of Service Employees International Union, one of several labor unions pushing for changes, said her members are "deeply disheartened that the dreams of hard-working immigrant families who have long contributed to the fabric of the American life remain in jeopardy. The White House’s decision to delay executive action forces countless families to continue to wait in the shadows of fear."
Immigrant rights groups and labor organizations that had supported Obama's push for comprehensive immigration reform had said they blamed Republicans for Congress's failure to produce a bill and would seek to mobilize turnout in the fall elections to punish the GOP. Obama's decision to delay his announcement could backfire on Democrats, as those groups turn their anger on the White House and congressional Democrats.
Top Obama aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Muñoz had been making calls to the interest groups this week in hopes of tamping down criticism in anticipation that Obama would announce a delay.
“The president’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director for United We Dream, an immigrant rights group. “Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we’ve received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone.”
In laying the groundwork for his executive actions, Obama had said he would be forced to make tough decisions over the government's ability to deal with a burgeoning crisis at the southern border, where an unprecedented influx of Central American adults and children have crossed over this year. The president indicated that, in the absence of additional money from Congress, he would look to shift resources from immigration enforcement inside the country to the border to help speed up deportations of the new arrivals.
However, the number of migrants being apprehended at the border has slowed significantly in the past two months, down from 250 per day in June to about 100 a day in July and August. That has eased the humanitarian crisis at a time when Congress has been out of Washington for summer recess--and taken away political attention and urgency that has shifted to international crises in Iraq and Ukraine.
Some advocates fear that if Republicans win control of the Senate, which would be interpreted as a repudiation of Obama's and the Democrats' agenda, Obama will feel political pressure to scale back his planned executive actions.
" I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of action by Congress, I’m going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office -- because it’s the right thing to do for the country," Obama said Friday during a news conference in Wales, where he had been attending a NATO summit.
Obama's decision Saturday didn't stop Republicans from continuing to make an issue of what the president might do on immigration. Republican Scott Brown, who is hoping to unseat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has made concerns about immigration a central tenet of his campaign. Brown said Obama's decision to delay "is of little comfort to people like myself who believe in the rule of law."
He added: "Make no mistake: President Obama plans to grant amnesty, it's just that he will cynically wait until after the election so as not to harm Senate Democrats."
News of Obama's decision was first reported by the Associated Press.