Border Crisis Casts Shadow Over Obama’s Immigration Plan


The crisis on the border with Mexico has overtaken President Obama’s plans to use executive action to reshape the nation’s immigration system, forcing him to confront a new set of legal, administrative and political complications.

The influx of 57,000 migrant children from Central America is leading Mr. Obama to crack down on deportations at the moment he was preparing to allow more undocumented people to stay in the country. Although White House officials insist that Mr. Obama has no intention of backing down on his public pledge to use executive orders to “fix as much of our immigration system as I can,” they acknowledge that the crisis has made it much harder.

Inside the West Wing and at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, administration lawyers are working to find consistent legal justifications for speeding up the deportations of Central American children at the border while preparing to ease up on deportations of long-settled immigrants in the country’s interior.

The challenge, according to lawyers inside and outside the government, is to somehow avoid being arbitrary in deciding who must go and who can stay.

“It’s legally complicated,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the domestic policy council at the White House and Mr. Obama’s top immigration adviser. “That was always going to be true. It’s just in higher relief now.”

At the same time, the members of Mr. Obama’s team who would play the most influential roles in crafting unilateral policy changes are instead immersed in the urgent debate over what powers the administration has to expedite the removal of unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the United States. The homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, has been spending much of his time on the border – he has traveled there five times since May. He has also been holding private conversations with lawmakers to generate support for the president’s $3.7 billion emergency funding request to address the surge of Central Americans. Ms. Muñoz has also made the trip.

“Operationally, they have a huge workload at this point for the very same people and agencies that would be involved in any kind of new program” created by executive order, said Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration.

Politically, the surge in crossings has allowed conservatives to seize on the crisis as new evidence that Mr. Obama’s policies are inviting illegal immigration across a still-porous border. The Central American surge has also incited criticism from Democrats and immigration activists whose anger about the administration’s enforcement of immigration laws led one activist last spring to call Mr. Obama the nation’s “deporter in chief.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama is to meet on the crisis at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Hispanic members of Congress, many of them angry that Mr. Obama has not done more for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.

“We cannot allow the humanitarian crisis on the border to take our eyes off the ability the president has right now to help 11 million people not have to be deported from the United States, not to have to live in the fear they live in,” said Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat who is to meet with Mr. Obama on Wednesday. “I want him to be bold and generous.”

When Mr. Gutiérrez and other Congressional Hispanic Caucus leaders visited the White House this year asking Mr. Obama to use his presidential power to curb deportations, the president told them to return in July. If congressional Republicans were still refusing to pass a broad overhaul, the president said, he would then be ready to act on his own.

But the current border crisis, Mr. Gutiérrez said, “has complicated the issue for all of us.”

Immigration, Ms. Meissner said, has “become quite toxic again.,”

White House officials said the president was well aware of the potentially explosive politics of the border crisis when he promised in the Rose Garden on June 30 that he was ready to announce executive actions later this summer because the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, had informed him that immigration legislation was effectively dead. At the time, Mr. Obama called the surge in children from Central America an “actual humanitarian crisis on the border,” and said it “only underscores the need to drop the politics and fix our immigration system once and for all.”

In the days leading up to the Rose Garden speech, there were discussions in the West Wing about the impact that the border crisis might have on the president’s promise to use his executive authority. White House officials said they decided that while the border emergency presented a considerable public relations problem, it should not get in the way of action later this summer. In the weeks since those meetings, the crisis in the Rio Grande Valley along the border has ballooned into round-the-clock cable television fare and constant fodder for Mr. Obama’s opponents in Congress.

“Republicans have decided to use the Rio Grande as a reason not to do immigration reform. We won’t,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. “Our belief is that now, more than ever, the American people see immigration as an urgent issue and want the administration to act to address the problem of a broken system.”

White House officials, without providing specifics, said the most likely executive actions that Mr. Obama will announce at the end of the summer were consistent with the administration’s efforts to move away from deporting unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country for years and have not otherwise broken the law.

Officials said the current crisis on the border fit that approach. By shifting resources away from long-established families, they said, law enforcement can better focus on processing the asylum claims of recent immigrants and deporting those who do not qualify to stay in the United States — a rationale that Peter J. Spiro, an immigration specialist at Temple University Law School, said had long been the basis of the nation’s current immigration system.

“There’s this longstanding distinction between undocumented immigrants who are inside the United States versus those who are outside trying to get in,” he said.

Immigration advocates continue to argue that the renewed emphasis on the border only sharpens the incentive for the president to take expansive executive action to protect more unauthorized immigrants.

“Obama’s legacy’s on the line,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform lobbying group. “Does he really want to go down as the ‘deporter in chief,’ and the only thing that happened during his second term was beefed-up enforcement and deportations? He’s the president. He’s got to take action.”

Although immigration advocates have long urged Mr. Obama to act unilaterally to shield millions unauthorized immigrants from deportation and grant them work permits, the president’s closest advisers say the move could add fuel to existing calls for his impeachment.