The Washington Post

As reform stalls, administration eyes acting on its own to ease deportations, lawmakers say

Immigrant rights activisits demonstrate during a 'National Day of Action' on April 10, 2014 in New York City. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is likely to take steps in coming weeks to ease the pace of deportations for some illegal immigrants while also considering much broader changes if GOP lawmakers continue to block immigration reforms, according to several House Democrats and aides, who met with the new homeland security secretary this week.

Administration officials say that no decisions have been made by President Obama, and cautioned that there are serious legal obstacles to bypassing Congress on immigration policies.

But members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and aides who were involved in a closed-door briefing with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said they think the tide is shifting in favor of some unilateral action by the administration.

Johnson told the group that he had a series of “short-term goals” he hoped to address in coming weeks and that he would focus on “longer-term” issues later, after completing a comprehensive review ordered by Obama, participants said. Changes could include narrowing the definition of who should be deported under current policies, which have ensnared many immigrants with steady jobs and young families that have been arrested for relatively minor offenses.

“We have an administration that has said, ‘There’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I can do,’ ” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), an outspoken critic of the administration’s deportation policies. “Now, we’re sitting down with a homeland security secretary who’s saying, ‘I’m reviewing everything,’ and clearly he’s going to take steps.”

Immigration reform and the 2014 midterm elections (The Washington Post/Source: Census Bureau)

Peter Boorgaard, a DHS spokesman, said Thursday that “any report of specific considerations at this time would be premature.” He added that Johnson “has been taking a hard look at these tough issues” and that the “process is ongoing, and will be conducted expeditiously.”

Any executive moves on immigration could have a significant impact on this year’s midterm elections, cheering many Democrats while angering conservative Republicans who oppose a comprehensive border agreement.

Some Democrats and pro-immigration advocates say that a decision to further ease the pace of deportations would help drive Latino and Asian American voters to the polls, as in 2012, when Obama offered temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants.

But others, including some inside the administration, say the political calculus this time around is much less clear. Nearly all of the competitive Senate races are in states with small proportions of Hispanics and Asian Americans, the two groups that would benefit most from more liberal border control policies.

Some Democrats also fear that a unilateral immigration move before November could make the party’s turnout problem worse by driving more Republicans to the polls in some races.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, supported the president’s decision in 2012 to stem deportations of young immigrants and thinks Obama has the legal authority to expand on that decision.

However, Kelley said she agrees with the president’s advice to advocates at a White House meeting two weeks ago to focus on pressing House Republicans to pass a comprehensive legislative deal, which would have a larger and more lasting impact.

“You don’t necessarily follow the same playbook: 2014 is not 2012,” Kelley said in an interview before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Johnson. “And the next step in policy is not as same as the first step.”

Obama is under growing pressure from Latinos and pro-immigration groups to slow or halt deportations, and he has ordered Johnson to complete a review of immigration enforcement policies by June. The administration has deported more than 2 million people since Obama took office — more than the George W. Bush administration did in eight years — and the president has said he wants Johnson to find ways to make the policies “more humane.”

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested that Republican opposition to an immigration deal is fueled, at least partially, by race. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they are not bringing up an immigration bill,” Pelosi said, adding: “I’ve heard them say to the Irish, ‘If it were just you, this would be easy.’ ”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) angrily dismissed Pelosi’s charge, saying the lack of progress stemmed from distrust of Obama on a range of issues.

In some competitive House races, Democrats are attempting to use immigration against Republicans whose districts have significant Latino populations.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has attacked Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.) for supporting GOP proposals that would force the Obama administration to deport about 800,000 children of illegal immigrants, saying that his votes “torpedoed the chances of bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform happening this Congress.” The committee also lambasted Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) for refusing to join with Democrats to force a vote on an immigration bill that is sponsored by three other Republicans.

But the equation becomes more difficult for Democrats on the Senate side. Republicans need to pick up six seats to win control, and tight races in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina, among others, have Democrats nervous about Obama’s sluggish approval ratings and GOP attacks on the president’s health-care law.

In states with the 10 most competitive Senate races, only Colorado and Alaska have a higher percentage of Latinos and Asian Americans, respectively, than the U.S. population as a whole.

Some advocates said a major move by the White House could backfire by providing fodder for Republicans who cite Obama’s 2012 deferred action program as evidence that Obama refuses to uniformly enforce border control laws.

The administration says that more than 500,000 young people have been granted protections under the program, which applies to immigrants first brought to the United States as children.

“The politics work against him right now if the Senate is what they’re focused on,” said one immigration advocacy leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about electoral strategy.“A big or small administrative action plays into the right’s narrative of an imperial president.”

At the time of the 2012 announcement, the White House and the Obama reelection campaign appeared fearful that the president could lose Latino support in the face of an effort by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to develop an alternative to the failed Dream Act, which sought to provide legal status to young immigrants.

After Obama unveiled his own program, Rubio dropped his immigration efforts for that year. The president cruised to reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote among Hispanics and Asian Americans.

Some advocates said 2015 might be a better time for Obama to make a unilateral move, as it would be tied more clearly to the 2016 presidential race. But others said that strategy has its own risks for the Democrat currently occupying the Oval Office.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a frequent and outspoken critic of Obama’s deportation policies, said he left this week’s meeting with Johnson impressed by what he heard.

“I told him that it’s just got to happen quickly, because people are feeling abandoned by us,” said Grijalva, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “It’s the first time I thought we in the CHC were treated as grown-ups.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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