President Obama will postpone action on his promise to remake federal immigration policies through executive authority until after the midterm elections in November, the White House announced Saturday, acquiescing to Democrats’ fears that such a move would damage their prospects for maintaining control of the U.S. Senate.
White House officials acknowledged the deep concerns inside the party and emphasized that the decision to delay was also driven by the calculation that a unilateral move in the heat of the electoral season could doom the chances of more sweeping immigration reform beyond Obama’s presidency — maybe for a decade or more.
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 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.”
In a statement, the White House vowed that Obama would act before the end of the year. He had previously pledged to act by summer’s end, and the delay was met with widespread denunciations from immigrant rights groups and Republican critics who described the delay as political gamesmanship.
“There is 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.”
In the “Meet the Press” interview, Obama rejected criticism that the postponement was a tactical maneuver intended to help embattled Democrats in the midterms. But over the past several weeks, a growing chorus of Democrats, especially those in competitive Senate races in North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, has publicly called on Obama to delay or abandon his executive-action plans. Of the states where Senate seats are in play this fall, Colorado, which has a sizable Hispanic population, was the only one where Democrats believed such a move by the president might work in their favor.
Several people familiar with the White House’s internal deliberations cited the Clinton White House’s failed efforts to overhaul health-care policy in 1994, which was blamed for Democrats losing the House for the first time in 40 years. As a result, the issue became so politically fraught that Washington was unwilling to make another run at it for 15 years — until Obama did in the first years of his presidency.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, supports the delay. He said Saturday that an Obama executive order “could be a policy mistake.” Unilateral action by the president, he said, could confuse the debate by muddling what should be a national discussion about an important issue.
“I think back to the passage of the civil rights bill and wonder, if LBJ or Kennedy or Eisenhower had taken unilateral executive action, it might have ultimately delayed passage,” King said.
A White House official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said, “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.”
Activists were unconvinced. “It’s just really, really ridiculous to see that they’re basically once again throwing the Latino community under the bus when it comes to politics,” said Erika Andiola, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. “They’ve already done things for the LGBT community. They did executive actions for labor. Well, what about the Latino community? Why are we being thrown under the bus just to keep the Senate, when they can’t even prove that it’s going to hurt the Senate?”
Obama first promised to take action by the end of summer during an announcement in the Rose Garden on June 30, shortly after Boehner informed him that the GOP-controlled House would not take up immigration reform after a year-long drive by the White House for a legislative overhaul.
Over the past two months, the president was reportedly considering large-scale proposals that would potentially defer the deportations of up to 5 million of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and grant more green cards to foreign workers. In August, the White House began preliminary planning to send Obama to the Texas border to help lay the groundwork for an announcement, but those plans were scrapped in recent weeks.
Instead, the growing list of Democrats calling on Obama to delay his decision helped persuade the White House to change course. Republicans need to win six seats to take control of the Senate, and the GOP has painted Obama — on immigration, health care and other issues — as an imperial president seeking to circumvent Congress after not getting his way legislatively.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who had lobbied for a delay in recent days, said Obama was being “practical” with just two months to go before the election. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said he was “disappointed” by Obama’s decision. Most other Democrats in competitive reelection races declined to comment Saturday.
Henry Cisneros, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration task force, said he understood the frustration and disappointment many Latinos are feeling in the wake of the delay. But he added that an ill-timed executive order would “risk the big game, which is comprehensive immigration reform.”
“I understand completely the pressures the president is under and the real political environment that the immigration advocates must take into account,” Cisneros said. “What we don’t want to do is doom the more expansive immigration reform that is needed.”
Top Obama aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Muñoz began informing immigrant rights groups and labor unions that had supported a broad executive order of the delay in telephone calls this past week. One of the initial calls from the White House went to AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, whose union has deep get-out-the-vote networks in some of the crucial states in play in the midterms this fall.
Trumka, who had been a vocal advocate for Obama to take broad action on immigration, did not respond Saturday to requests for comment about the delay.
Mary Kay Henry, head of the Service Employees International Union, one of several labor unions pushing for changes, said, “The White House’s decision to delay executive action forces countless families to continue to wait in the shadows of fear.”
Immigrant rights groups 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 could dampen that effort as those groups turn their anger on the White House and congressional Democrats. On average, more than 1,000 immigrants a day have been deported during Obama’s presidency, according to federal statistics, and advocates have grown increasingly frustrated waiting for the president to act on the issue.
Some advocates said they fear that if Republicans win control of the Senate, which could be interpreted as a repudiation of Obama’s and the Democrats’ agenda, Obama will feel political pressure to scale back whatever executive actions he had been planning.
“The president’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community,” said Cristina Jiménez, 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.”
Democratic strategists have countered that it is easier to make the case for expansive executive action in the context of a presidential campaign year than it is in a midterm, where the battlefield is narrower and where the Latino vote makes less of a difference.
As part of the rationale for his executive actions, Obama had said earlier in the summer that he would be forced to make tough decisions over the government’s ability to deal with a burgeoning crisis at the southern U.S. border, where more than 126,000 Central American adults and children have entered the United States this year.
The president indicated in early August — after Congress rejected the White House’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the border crisis — that he would look to shift federal 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 has dropped sharply 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 political attention has shifted to international crises in Iraq and Ukraine — and perhaps drained some of the urgency from the rationale for quick executive action.
Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane contributed to this report.