White House

Under pressure from Dems, Obama delays action on immigration

Protestors at the Camino Americano: March for Immigration Reform on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. October 8, 2013.
Protestors at the Camino Americano: March for Immigration Reform on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. October 8, 2013. Sarah Sexton

Facing pressure from Senate Democrats worried about losing seats in November, President Barack Obama will postpone until after the election his plans to act on his own to change immigration laws, White House officials said Saturday.

The White House blamed Republican opposition for delaying Obama’s plans to act until the end of the year. But the White House was feeling heat from vulnerable Senate Democrats who feared a controversial change in immigration law _ made without congressional approval _ would energize Republican voters and hurt them at the ballot box in November.

A White House official said Obama is committed to finding ways to reduce deportations.

“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,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy.

The decision infuriated immigration advocates who accused Obama of breaking a promise. They had expected a plan for temporary legal status to help some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants stay and work in the U.S. They said his decision will mean more deportations.

“The president and Senate Democrats have chosen politics over people,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group, America’s Voice. “These politicians are simply sunshine opportunists, who expect Latino voters to support them in good times, but when the going gets tough, they abandon Latinos and their issues as fast as you can say piñata.”

He said he had little faith that a “litany of high expectations and broken promises” could be fixed by the end of the year.

Obama had promised at a June 30 Rose Garden appearance to act on an immigration fix before the end of the summer, as he blasted House Republicans for failing to take up an immigration overhaul that cleared the Senate in June 2013.

“If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” he said at the time.

But the politics did not develop as the White House expected. Rather than rallying support among the Democratic base including Hispanic voters and raising pressure on Republicans, the promise of unilateral action by the president energized Republicans and threatened a backlash against the Democrats.

The dynamic was clear in the fight for control of the Senate, where Democrats are struggling to hold their majority and Republicans have a good chance of gaining the 6 seats they need to seize power.

Aggravating the challenge, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had said he would push a Senate vote on the issue if Obama eased immigration rules, a potentially embarrassing choice for Democrats in close races.

In North Carolina this week, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said that Obama “should not take” executive action on immigration. In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said that the failure of Congress to act “doesn’t give the President carte blanche authority to sidestep Congress when he doesn’t get his way.”

And in Kentucky, one of the few states where Democrats hope to defeat an incumbent Republican this year, Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes said Obama “is wrongly using executive orders.”

White House officials were careful not to rule out an executive action, only to say it would not happen before the November elections.

“The president is confident in his authority to act, and he will before the end of the year,” the official said. “But again, nothing will replace Congress acting on comprehensive immigration reform and the President will keep pressing Congress to act.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, charged Obama with seeking to rewrite the law without voters’ approval.

“The president isn’t saying he’ll follow the law. He’s just saying he’ll go around the law once it’s too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections,” McConnell said Saturday.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose chamber has filed a lawsuit accusing Obama of overreach his Constitutional authority in his execution of the health care law, said Obama should abandon, not just delay, what he called a “deeply-controversial and possibly unconstitutional” move.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is not up for reelection until 2018, said he believed Obama made the right call, saying it’s more likely immigration reform can be debated after the election.

“There’s no way anybody was going to listen to an informed debate on immigration while House Republicans are scared of tea party members before the election,” Nelson said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Obama is determined to act “and when he does I support a broad use of his authority to fix as much of our broken immigration system as he can through executive action.”

Obama signaled that he might delay his plans at a late August press conference, in which he expressed support for an immigration overhaul, but dropped any reference to a deadline.

And just Friday as he closed out a NATO press conference in Wales, he would not commit to a firm date, saying he’d read recommendations from Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Secretary Secretary Jeh Johnson on his flight home to Washington Friday evening.

“What I’m unequivocal about is that we need immigration reform; that my overriding preference is to see Congress act,” Obama said at the end of a two day NATO summit. “But 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.”