WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has once again vowed to act alone on immigration reform, mulling a solution unlikely to be reached legislatively in the new GOP-controlled Congress.
“I am going to do what I can do through executive action. It's not going to be everything that needs to get done. And it will take time to put that in place,” Obama said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And in the interim, the minute [Congress passes] a bill that addresses the problems with immigration reform, I will sign it, and it supersedes whatever actions I take.”
The Obama administration is said to be weighing the extension of legal reprieve to a portion of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants before the end of the year, just as the White House did in 2012 with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded young immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children from deportation.
But whether Obama’s new executive orders will only affect a sliver of the undocumented population or be more expansive is still undecided.
The New York Times and Fox News, citing unnamed administration officials, reported Thursday that the plan would likely extend relief to approximately 5 million individuals, by loosening the requirements for DACA and also extending relief to those who are the parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. The initiative, according to the reports, could be released as early as next week.
"It is certainly possible that some of the dozens of actions that have been talked about in the press could ultimately be considered by the President when he begins his deliberations on this issue," a White House official said in a statement. "But the fact remains that the President has not made any decisions as to which proposals to implement and anyone who suggests that they know precisely what he’s considering, is uninformed."
Immigration advocates, who have waited years to see movement on the issue and expressed their betrayal when Obama decided to punt on it earlier in the fall, are urging the administration to go as big and as bold as possible.
“We were profoundly disappointed when there was a delay because we know that every day there are people who would have stepped forward and applied for a reprieve,” said Laura Vazquez, an immigration analyst at the National Council of La Raza. “If anything, the expectations have grown larger.”
If the program is extended to those immigrants who have a U.S. citizen child or spouse, about 3.8 million undocumented immigrants would be affected, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute. Eligibility could also be determined simply by the number of years an undocumented immigrant has been living in the United States. Approximately 3 million have lived in the country for 5 years and 5.7 million for 10 years as of 2012.
“He’s going to need to do something very big, very dramatic to turn around his legacy on immigration," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “Just nibbling around the edges is not going to cut it.”
Tramonte said that her organization was pushing the administration to use criteria set out by the bipartisan Senate immigration bill to start on the path to citizenship as their guide.
“That passed by a bipartisan basis and set forward requirements by which 8 million unauthorized immigrants could come forward, register, apply for provisional status with background checks and work toward citizenship,” she said. “Those requirements are all very valid and fair and they could use that legislation as a model for their executive action policy.”
Advocates acknowledged that the potential for disappointment was still high.
Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said she was confident the president would do whatever was in the scope of his legal authority.
“There is definitely apprehension in the community that it won’t be as ambitious as some would like,” she said. “He’s going to have to set forth a policy that protects some, and others won’t be in the zone of protection, and for those people it’s going to feel incredibly unjust. However he draws the circle, there’s going to be people who wish he could draw it bigger.”
Nonetheless, others noted that whatever actions the administration chose to take, it would be better than the status quo, with an estimated 1,100 people being deported every day.
“I definitely know one thing: Whatever he does is better than what the Republicans have done, which was to kill the best chance that we had,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, an organization that encourages Latino civic participation. “Even if it’s 3 million, 3 million is 3 million families that will be helped. If it is 5 million, I am more excited about it. If it’s more than 5 million, it’s even better.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans are warning Obama that he is inviting trouble with the new Republican Congress if he acts on his own, indicating there will be consequences.
"I've made clear to the president that if he acts unilaterally on his own, outside of his authority, he will poison the well, and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress. It's as simple as that," House Speaker John Boehner said last Thursday in a post-election press conference. "When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself. And he's going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path."
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas have already circulated a statement asking Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, whether she supports the president’s “executive amnesty.”
Al Cardenas, former president of the American Conservative Union and a prominent backer of immigration reform, said GOP leadership would put more pressure on Obama to hold off on his executive orders if they laid out a timetable of their own for acting on reform. So far, neither Boehner nor Mitch McConnell, expected to be elected Senate Majority Leader, have mentioned immigration reform as a priority on their legislative agendas.
“There are very important constitutional questions about whether the president has stepped over the line, and that is something that the courts should determine, because we’re a country of laws. We always want our elected officials to be acting appropriately,” Cardenas said. “But by the same token, the legislature has a responsibility, and they need to be passing laws.”