President Obama plans to go "as far as he can under the law" to change the nation's immigration policy at some point after the midterm elections and likely before the end of the year, according to lawmakers briefed on his intentions Thursday.
Details of Obama's plans came directly from White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, Obama's domestic policy chief Cecilia Munoz and White House General Counsel Neil Eggleston, who huddled Thursday afternoon with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a Capitol conference room down the hall from the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who did not attend.
The gathering appeared designed to quell dissension among Democrats upset about Obama's decision to delay using his executive authority to change immigration policy until after the November elections, amid concerns that any moves might contribute to Democratic losses in the House and Senate.
But the meeting also came as Obama is calling on Congress to grant him the authority to train and equip Syrian rebels and Iraqi forces to counter the rising threat of the Islamic State terror group. While the president appears to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support for his new counterterrorism strategy, word of his plans on a sensitive domestic issue has the potential to sour that support.
Exiting the meetings, lawmakers who attended said it focused singularly on immigration and covered a range of emotions.
The exchange went "as well as can be expected," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of Obama's harshest critics on immigration reform. Another Democrat described the meeting as a "frank and stern" discussion and said that at least one of his colleagues cried during the exchange.
McDonough described it as a chance to "underscore our continuing commitment to resolve the challenges with our broken immigration system." But he declined to confirm to reporters the details of what he told lawmakers in the room.
According to people who attended, during the meeting one lawmaker laid out a potential nightmare scenario for McDonough. What would happen, the lawmaker asked, if Democrats lose control of the Senate and lose seats in the House after Republicans successfully convince voters that Obama is a "dictator" who is using his executive authority to make policy? Will Obama still use his executive authority to change immigration policy?
"Dennis McDonough said 'yes,'" according to one lawmaker, who asked not to be identified in order to maintain his relations with the White House.
Among the steps Obama is weighing are proposals to grant temporary deportation relief to 4 million to 5 million undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and proposals to free up tens of thousands of green cards for employment and family reunification.
Obama is already on pace this year to deport the fewest number of immigrants since at least 2007, according to an analysis of Homeland Security Department figures by The Associated Press. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deportations, sent back 258,608 immigrants between the start of the fiscal year last October and July 28. At the same point a year earlier, the agency had deported 320,167 people -- a 20 percent difference, the AP said.
The Hispanic caucus is comprised of 26 House Democrats and one senator, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Members of the group that they plan to meet next week to consider whether to formally register a complaint with Obama about his decision not to act.
"We are very, very clear that there are no more excuses, there are no more delays," Gutierrez told reporters after the meeting. "I don't care what senator is dangling in the wind, I don't care what Republican proposal is being put forward, I don't care what happens. We are moving forward."
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) added that "We told [McDonough] we were mad because we thought for sure that he would act. We got promises that he's going to act as generously as he possibly can before the end of the holiday season."