Lawmakers, advocates scramble as Obama slows immigration timeline

Immigrant rights activists shout slogans in front of the White House on August 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Across the nation, lawmakers and activists were bracing for the White House to announce unilateral action on immigration enforcement by the end of the the summer. But a recent suggestion by President Obama that the timing might have been pushed back is forcing a last-minute scramble to rethink strategy -- just two months before the midterm elections.

Democrats who were either cheering the moves or bracing for campaign blowback must rethink re-election strategy. And Republicans who had hinted at a budget brawl tied to immigration must take a look at their legislative strategy ahead of the midterms.

Then there are immigration advocates who are already frustrated with what they see as foot-dragging by the White House. They must decide whether their best strategy is to ramp up public pressure on Mr. Obama to stop stalling or ease up and hope he will address their concerns in the near future.

Obama said in June that he would not wait for Republicans to move on immigration, which has been a point of contention on Capitol Hill for months. The president said that by the end of the summer, he would announce steps he could take that he felt were within his executive power.

But during a press conference Thursday, he suggested that deadline might change due to external crises including national security threats abroad and the surge of children who have come across the southern border seeking refuge.

"Some of these things do affect time lines and we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done," the president said.

On Friday, the White House acknowledged it was possible that that the announcement might come later than the looming end-of-summer deadline the president had said, although it's unclear whether the change might be a few weeks or months that could push it past the November elections.

"The president is determined to take the kinds of steps that are available to him," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, but he had no details to offer about when that would happen.

Any delay might give Mr. Obama's opponents the opportunity to claim that he is playing politics, given the number of Democrats in tough re-election campaigns who might suffer from yet another unilateral move by the president. Reluctant to fuel that charge, White House officials suggested that any change in the timeline would be prompted by the situation at the southern border, not the election calendar.

The number of minors from Central America have dropped in recent months, but officials have been wary to claim credit for the decline and have warned the numbers could begin to creep back up this fall as cooler temperatures take hold.

The White House has been fairly tight-lipped about what options Mr. Obama is considering, but much of the focus has centered on ways he could defer deportations for millions of people in the U.S. illegally, effectively granting them permission to remain in the country and work legally. Republicans say that's beyond the scope of presidential authority and even a few endangered Democrats have expressed uneasiness with such a move, suggesting he must wait for Congress to act.

The president's lawyers are expected to argue that Congress has left the administration with too few resources to enforce every law and deport all of the roughly 11.5 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. That forces the government to prioritize which immigrants to remove from the country.

For Democrats, who are battling in conservative-leaning states that are leery of Obama, presidential action has been seen as a likely liability in the election, fueling GOP arguments that Obama is exceeding his authority and that he and Democrats are refusing to enforce immigration laws. Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist, said the timing of Obama's action could affect whether voters enthusiastic about immigration show up to vote.

"All of these elections are going to be so laser-tight - 5,000 votes one way or the other - that at some level, what's out there at the broader, national level at election time could push things over the edge," Lehane said.

The timing of any announcements could affect the way Congress approaches the short-term spending bill it must pass this fall to keep the government running through December. It is at the top of the agenda when the House and Senate return from their August recess next month.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, suggested last week that his fellow Republicans might take advantage of the fact that the spending bill is a must-pass item to block the president from taking executive action on immigration. That could set up a possible government shutdown like the one in 2013, which was not favorable to Republicans.

Rubio wrote to Obama, warning him that any unilateral actions would endanger the prospects of Congress working on an immigration overhaul after the election. Rubio's spokesman, Alex Conant, called the apparent delay a positive sign and one he hoped Obama would make permanent.

"It appears that the White House made a short-term political calculation that this was bad for them in the midterms," Conant said.

Immigration advocates were taken aback by word of the potential delay, having been given no advance warning by the White House. Kica Matos of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement said that after spending months keeping the pressure on Obama -- one prominent Latino group dubbed him the "deporter-in-chief" -- her organization had been shifting into preparations for the announcement itself. Now, Matos said, exhausted advocates will have keep up the pressure to ensure Obama doesn't get cold feet and call off the announcement altogether.

"They say they're going to move forward, then somebody goes boo and then they hide," Matos said.

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