Immigration reform: If Obama moves on his own, how big a political risk?

President Obama may be ready to ease up on deportations, following reported recommendations under consideration by the Homeland Security secretary. That would please key elements of the Democratic base, but infuriate Republicans. 

Alex Leary/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Cynthia Diaz, a US citizen from Arizona, protests deportations with a group of immigrant activists outside the White House on April 8. Cynthia's mother was deported in 2011 and crossed back into the US from Mexico this March, and is now being detained in Arizona.

President Obama has long insisted he does not have the power to waive deportations of illegal immigrants on his own. 

But under pressure from political allies, Mr. Obama may be headed for some changes of immigration policy via the Department of Homeland Security. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson is considering limiting deportations of undocumented immigrants who do not have serious criminal records, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Obama set the stage for the reported recommendations last month, when he ordered Secretary Johnson to review how current immigration law is implemented, with an eye toward conducting enforcement “more humanely,” as the White House put it.

The change of policy, if adopted, “could shield tens of thousands of immigrants now removed each year solely because they committed repeat immigration violations, such as reentering the country illegally after having been deported, failing to comply with a deportation order, or missing an immigration court date,” the AP reported.

Such a move would fall short of the larger changes pro-immigrant activists are hoping for, such as granting work permits to the illegal-immigrant parents of American-born children. At the same time, any unilateral move by the administration that grants new rights to certain illegal immigrants would likely anger Republicans, who accuse Obama of abusing his executive powers.

The president has long said the only way to achieve comprehensive immigration reform is to go through Congress. But almost a year after the Senate passed reform legislation on a bipartisan vote, the Republican-controlled House has yet to act.

Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner warned Obama not to act on his own, saying it would make it “almost impossible” to earn the trust needed to pass a new law. 

In a press conference last week, Obama acknowledged Republicans’ political challenge, but again made the case for addressing the difficulties of families with members who face the threat of deportation.

“I … know it’s hard politics for Republicans, because there are some in their base that are very opposed to this,” Obama said. “But what I also know is that there are families all across the country who are experiencing great hardship and pain because this is not getting resolved.”

On Monday, the AFL-CIO called on the administration to grant work authorization to undocumented immigrants who are already deemed low priority for deportation, and argued that DHS has the legal authority to do so.

“This would stop employers from ‘playing the deportation card’ that pits workers against each other,” the nation’s largest trade-union federation said in a policy statement.

Undocumented workers can be subject to exploitation, such as being short-changed on overtime pay, enduring unsafe work conditions, or feeling unable to pursue a legitimate workmen’s compensation claim, labor officials say.

The federation's call for more rights for undocumented workers seemed to pit labor against its ally, Obama. But in making interim changes to policy via executive action, the president could still come out ahead politically, says AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser.

“We’re motivated on policy, but we do believe it’s a win-win on politics as well,” Mr. Hauser says.

Obama’s job approval among Democrats has been slipping, but if he were to ease up on deportations, he would energize his base ahead of the November midterm elections, the argument goes.  Democrats are fighting to hold onto their majority in the Senate, and their biggest fear is low turnout.

And what about the Republicans angered by a unilateral move by Obama on immigration?  If the president’s support rises among immigrant communities and their allies, including churches and labor, that increases pressure on Republicans to deliver on immigration reform.

“There are people who say it’s a choice between legislation and executive action,” says Hauser. “We absolutely believe that’s a false choice – that in fact, executive action increases the odds of legislative action.” 

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