Obama's Warning: 'Right-Size' Immigration Expectations


Just after President Barack Obama had finally soothed frustrated immigrant-rights activists by vowing to use his executive power to patch the immigration system, he issued a plea of his own to the group assembled at the White House.

“We need to right-size expectations,” Obama said before stepping into the Rose Garden last week to announce that he had given up on Congress, according to multiple attendees.

Nobody nodded in agreement. After a long wait — first for Congress to pass an overhaul bill, then for the president to act on his own — immigrant advocates weren’t in any mood to low-ball their demands.

But Obama’s comment underscored the political stakes of his promise to take the most aggressive steps of his presidency to fix the system.

The White House needs to mollify progressive allies who are demanding payback from an administration that has long disappointed them on immigration. Some in the Democratic coalition are even contemplating a stay-at-home-in-November strategy if Obama does little beyond what they see as symbolic measures.

There are also worries among advocates that Obama will pull back if the influx of Central American children on the southwestern border erodes public support for the broader reforms. The White House on Tuesday asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address the growing crisis.

And as House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to sue the administration over its use — or alleged misuse — of executive authority, Obama’s team needs to decide how far it can go legally.

Hispanic lawmakers and reform advocates have already set the highest bar possible: Obama should grant temporary legal status to the almost 10 million undocumented immigrants who would have qualified under a bill passed last year by the Senate. As unlikely as that may seem within the White House, advocates have made the demand in meetings with Obama and aides, in memos to top Homeland Security officials and through the Spanish-language media.

“Expectations are sky-high — that’s just the reality,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who attended the meeting last week with Obama. “This movement has produced a tremendous amount of power and momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, and with House Republicans blocking it, it’s up to the president.”

Adding to the elevated hopes about what Obama will do is the feeling among Democratic strategists that immigration reform is a clear political winner: The people who will be opposed to reform or to the president taking action on his own are already likely prime Republican base voters. But voters whom Obama might be able to activate, both among immigrant communities and progressives overall who see this issue as a touchstone, are exactly the ones that Democrats are hoping will be there to counter a midterm year in which the map and historical trends favor GOP turnout.

In many competitive House districts and several of the Senate races that Democrats need to hold onto to have a chance of retaining the majority — Colorado and Iowa, and to a lesser extent, North Carolina and Arkansas — immigrant communities make up a significant bloc of votes. Done in a way that energizes Latinos and Asians, Obama’s taking the lead on immigration could prove a margin-making move for the midterms.

Obama seemed to signal during last week’s meeting that he would not go as far as extending temporary protections to all undocumented immigrants, attendees said. But he surprised the group by saying he planned to be “aggressive” and suggested that he would max out his legal authority to change the immigration system.

“He was really decisive about doing everything he could within the bounds of the Constitution and legal authority to protect our families,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who participated in the meeting. “The expectation is that he really does get to that limit.”

There are two major areas that the president is expected to address.

The first is enforcement reforms, which involve changes to the policies governing which undocumented immigrants who come in contact with authorities are funneled into the system. Options include further refining the government’s enforcement priorities, overhauling or ending a local enforcement program known as Secure Communities, and limiting deportations without hearings.

The second area is known as “affirmative relief,” which means allowing certain undocumented immigrants to receive a temporary legal status that could include protection from deportation and a work permit. The president will need to decide how big he wants to go: provide relief to every immigrant who would’ve qualified under last year’s Senate bill, or protect only smaller subsets of the undocumented population based on family ties, longevity in the country or employment background.

The Service Employees International Union, for example, is pushing for three basic areas where the administration could take action: reducing deportations for those who work and pay taxes, providing some sort of temporary legal status for that group and redirecting prosecutions of companies from those that are basically following the rules to those that are more explicitly exploiting and mistreating undocumented people. [...]

Continue reading:http://www.politico.com/story/2014/07/immigration-options-vex-white-house-108690.html

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