WASHINGTON – President Obama is suggesting that he will defer his self-imposed deadline for announcing an expected change in immigration policy, as the White House wrestles with the political and legal dilemmas involved in making significant alterations without congressional approval.
Fed up with congressional gridlock, the president has said he’ll use his executive power to make changes. One proposal under discussion would delay a decision on the more sweeping and controversial changes under consideration until after the November midterm election, according to a White House official familiar with the discussions.
Under that plan, the president would first announce measures aimed at tightening enforcement of current law, then put off until the end of the year a decision on a more sweeping program that could temporarily shield millions of immigrants from deportation.
The two-step plan would bow to the concerns of Democratic lawmakers running in Republican-leaning states who have expressed opposition to Obama’s plans to act unilaterally on the hot-button issue. Some Democratic senators have said he should wait for Congress to pass legislation.
And some Democratic strategists fret that the move would spark opposition among Republicans and energize the GOP base just weeks before the midterm election. The GOP is expected to maintain its House majority and needs a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate.
Aides say the president has not made a decision on precise actions or timing. The official familiar with the talks, who would not be identified discussing internal deliberations, said the two-step proposal was one of several on the table.
At a White House news conference on Thursday, the president hinted that he may need more time than expected.
Obama declared in June that he was fed up with lawmakers’ deadlock on immigration legislation and ordered Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson to recommend a series of changes that did not require lawmakers’ approval.
Obama said he expected the recommendations “before the end of summer” and intended “to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”
He has not yet received Johnson’s review.
On Thursday, Obama reiterated his plans to take some action, but did not repeat his deadline.
Instead, Obama noted that a recent surge of unaccompanied minors turning themselves in at the border appears to have subsided. The crisis had consumed headlines for much of the summer, adding to Democrats’ worry that public support for easing the path to citizenship for those in this country illegally could slip.
Obama said Thursday that the crisis “changed the perception of the American people about what’s happening at the borders,” and argued that it demonstrated the need for changes. The situation also demanded his administration’s attention and resources, he said.
“Some of these things do affect timelines, and we’re just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done,” Obama said at the news conference. “But have no doubt: In the absence of congressional action, I’m going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”
White House officials say the president wants to enact broad changes, including a program modeled on one he established in 2012 for so-called Dreamers – those illegally brought to the U.S. as children who have met other qualifications, such as a high school diploma or military service.
The new program could protect some groups of immigrants – such as those who have deep roots in the U.S. or who have children living in the U.S. legally, for example – from deportation.
Delaying that action until after November could give lawmakers more time to find consensus on immigration. Although few on the Hill think that is likely, Obama said he had not closed the door.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said Thursday.
A delay is far more likely to frustrate immigration advocates who have been pushing Obama to act – and who are expecting the announcement soon.
Complicating Obama’s deliberations is the budget fight awaiting lawmakers when they return from their August recess early next month.
Congress must pass legislation to fund the government in the upcoming fiscal year by Sept. 30, when the current law expires.
Key conservatives have warned that Republicans may try to stop the president’s actions by attaching prohibitions to the spending bill.
Such a move could resemble last fall’s 16-day government shutdown, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to undo Obama’s landmark health care law.
Some Democrats have welcomed the shutdown scenario as an opportunity to portray the Republicans in Congress as extremists, particularly on immigration – an issue especially important to Latino voters.
But others have suggested that such a fight could damage both parties as voters have grown weary of crisis politics in Washington.