President Barack Obama's abrupt shift from seeking immigration legislation to pursuing a go-it-alone executive strategy raises expectations among immigration advocates that Obama may have trouble satisfying while setting up a clash with House Republicans who've already threatened to sue him.
Limited in his powers to ease deportations and under pressure to crack down on a tide of Central American children entering the U.S. without their parents, Obama has only so many options to tackle an immigration conundrum complicated by a midterm election that could cost him Democratic control of the Senate.
Obama on Monday blamed Republican resistance for the demise of sweeping immigration legislation and vowed to bypass Congress to patch up the system. "If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours," Obama said.
But seeking to slow deportations while simultaneously stemming the flow of young people across the U.S. Southern border presents Obama with a knotty set of policy choices.
He has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder for recommendations by the end of summer on the types of executive actions he could take to address some of the aims of a comprehensive bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last year. Among the steps he could consider would be to focus deportations on people with serious criminal records, something the administration has already tried to do, with mixed results.
For now, White House officials say he will refocus resources from the interior of the country to the border.
Many immigrant advocates want far broader changes that would shield millions of immigrants now here illegally from deportation by expanding a two-year-old program that granted work permits to certain immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. It's uncertain how far the president will go to meet those demands.
Dropping by a White House gathering of immigration advocates who were meeting with his senior advisers Monday, Obama promised he would take "aggressive" steps, according to some participants, but cautioned that he could not match on his own what broader legislation would accomplish.
In his public remarks Monday, he conceded the limits of his own authority, noting that unlike an executive action that would last only as long as he is president, legislation would be permanent.
At the same time, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to make it easier to deport recent border crossers, including the unaccompanied youths from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities. Those proposals found little support in the White House meeting, signaling to Obama and his aides the difficulty he could face managing the labor, business, religious and Hispanic coalition behind the push for an immigration overhaul.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, and Eliseo Medina, the union's secretary treasurer, were among those at the meeting and praised Obama's decision to move on his own in the absence of congressional action. But they urged caution on how to deal with the influx of young people.
"We also hope that as President Obama moves forward with administrative action, he will carefully and humanely address the urgent crisis of unaccompanied immigrant minors," the two said in a statement following the meeting. "Children — from whatever country they may come from — who are fleeing from violence or trying to reunite with their families obliges our country's leaders to act in the most compassionate and thoughtful way possible."
Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Panama, where he was to meet Tuesday with the country's new president. Kerry will also meet with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to discuss what they can do jointly to get the young, unaccompanied border crossers back and to seek ways to prevent this situation from occurring in the future.
Republicans, who have blamed Obama policies for attracting youths over the border, argued Obama has overstepped his authority in the past and has been rebuked twice in four days by the Supreme Court.
"He wants a comprehensive immigration overhaul that's his way or the highway," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. "It's disturbing that this president believes he can be a one-man legislative branch when it comes to our immigration laws." House Speaker John Boehner has announced plans to pursue a lawsuit against Obama over his use of executive authority.
Obama's announcement came almost a year to the day after the Senate passed a historic immigration bill that would have spent billions to secure the border and offered a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million people now here illegally. Despite the efforts of an extraordinary coalition of businesses, unions, religious leaders, law enforcement officials and others, the GOP-led House never acted, as the most conservative lawmakers refused to heed calls from GOP leaders to back action to revive the party's standing with Latino voters.
Obama said Boehner, R-Ohio, informed him last week that the House would not be taking up immigration legislation this year. But the speaker blamed the president for the outcome.
"I told the president what I have been telling him for months: The American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written," he said. "Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue."
Boehner called Obama's plan to go it alone "sad and disappointing."
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