President Obama was winding up a speech on immigration reform Monday, when a heckler interrupted him.
“Our families are separated. I need your help!” shouted a young man standing behind the president at the event at a recreation center in San Francisco. “You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country.”
“Actually, I don't,” Mr. Obama replied. “And that's why we're here.”
“Stop deportations!” the crowd chanted. “Yes we can! Stop deportations!”
The outburst interrupted an otherwise routine presidential speech aimed at drawing attention to an issue Obama views as vital, and away from the daily drip-drip of criticism over the rough rollout of Obamacare.
But it also reignited a question that has long undergirded the immigration debate: Can the president, in fact, do more on his own to address the nation’s broken immigration system, while the issue sits stuck in a highly polarized Congress?
Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform believe he can, especially in light of the June 2012 move by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to delay legal action against undocumented teens and young adults for two years and give them work permits – an action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“I think he overstates the case that he doesn’t have the authority,” says Frank Sharry, founder of the group America’s Voice. “He may not have authority to give people a path to citizenship. Of course he doesn’t. But does he have the authority to have DHS implement his priorities and reflect his values? Yes, and that’s not happening.”
Obama could add new categories of undocumented immigrants for deferred action, such as the parents of citizens and victims of domestic violence.
A former counsel at DHS agrees that there is more Obama can do to help low-priority illegal immigrants, but that he can’t solve the problem of 11 million undocumented immigrants on his own.
"There's certainly room for adjustment, but not anything sweeping," David A. Martin, law professor at the University of Virginia and a former DHS counsel, tells The Washington Post. "The justifications for DACA made clear that this is not a situation where the president can reduce overall enforcement of immigration laws. He can just redirect it in certain ways."
Obama has moved unilaterally in other areas, such as the Affordable Care Act, where he has tweaked aspects of the law and deferred deadlines without going through Congress. Critics say such moves represent an abuse of presidential power, but without a court ruling, it’s a largely political critique.
The president has declined to take executive action in other areas where he is under pressure and where legislation is pending, such as on the issue of employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But there are few issues as intractable and complex as the nation’s broken immigration system. In fact, even as Obama expresses sympathy for law-abiding undocumented people, his administration has deported 2 million immigrants – more than President George W. Bush did in eight years.
In September, Obama told Spanish-language TV Noticias Telemundo that if he were to go beyond DACA and add new categories of deferred deportations, he would be “ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally.”
So for now, it appears that legislation is the only way to make major strides on immigration. And given the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington – exacerbated last week when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada exercised the “nuclear option” to end filibusters on some presidential nominations – prospects for immigration reform seem even more remote.
Last week, Obama made the concession that he would support piecemeal reform, the House’s preferred approach, if that’s what it took. But he demanded that all the elements be there, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented, not just the enforcement aspects that Republicans support most.
But the House, which is scheduled to be in session only eight days in December, doesn’t appear set to take up any aspect of reform anytime soon. And it certainly doesn't look likely to deal with the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in June, 68 to 32, including 14 Republicans.
Last week, Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that he has "no intention" of ever going to a conference committee to compromise on the Senate bill.
Come January, the budget comes back to the fore, with government funding set to expire again on Jan. 15. And as long as the president is back on his heels over the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans are probably disinclined to give him anything that looks like a political victory. The countdown is on toward next November’s midterm elections, in which the GOP hopes to retake control of the Senate.
But what about the Republicans’ need to woo Latino voters, among whom they did so poorly last year? In March, the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” on the 2012 election called on Republicans to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”
The imperative appears weak for the 2014 midterms. The GOP already controls the House, and there are only a handful of Republican-held House districts with significant Latino populations – certainly not enough to fuel a Democratic takeover of the House.
The real challenge with the Latino vote comes in the presidential election of 2016. It could be hard for a Republican to win battleground states like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado without doing a lot better than Mitt Romney did among Latinos. But for now, Republicans are more focused on 2014.