The Obama administration is expected to announce revisions in the
coming weeks to policies that determine how undocumented immigrants
are selected for removal from the United States.
Advocates want sweeping executive actions since broad legislation to
rewrite immigration laws is stalled in Congress.
But experts say the changes are likely to be modest as the White
House holds out hope for a legislative fix this summer before
November's midterm congressional elections or next year when a new
Congress has been seated.
Activists and congressional aides expect the Department of Homeland
Security, which is reviewing the deportation guidelines, to focus on
Those include shortening the time period in which immigrants are
considered "new" and face increased scrutiny for deportation,
instituting deeper background checks of detainees when considering
whether they must leave, and protecting immigrants who are serving
in the U.S. military from the threat of removal.
The decision on how far to go creates a political dilemma for Obama.
Making massive changes would endear him to Hispanic voters who
helped propel him to the presidency and are furious about the high
number of deportations on his watch.
Taking symbolic but less far-reaching steps risks exacerbating
disappointment from Latinos and others in his political base just as
Obama wants them to turn out at the polls to elect Democrats in
"This is about Obama getting pressure from his base and how far he
can go to make sure that those people show up in 2014," said Lanae
Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third
Way, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.
Taking any executive action at all, however, risks alienating the
very Republicans Obama needs to attain his ultimate goal of passing
a bill with a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented
immigrants living in the country.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have said there may be
interest in tackling immigration reform this summer. But Speaker
John Boehner said any attempt to revise existing law without
congressional approval will backfire.
MOBILIZING THE BASE
Strategists and even some former aides to the president believe
Obama should disregard Republican objections and give a boost to
Democrats with a big policy shift.
"I think he should be more aggressive about making the case that 'if
you don't act, I will,'" said Luis Miranda, a former White House
aide who worked on immigration issues and is now managing director
at MDC Strategies, a communications firm.
Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at New York's Hunter
College, said the likelihood of Republicans passing immigration
reform this year was slim.
"If the White House is really worried about antagonizing
Republicans, it seems to me they're nuts," he said. "If they want to
do well in November, they've got to antagonize Republicans in order
to mobilize Democrats for the election."
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Hispanics polled by Reuters/Ipsos between January 2012 and March of
this year have consistently preferred Democrats' handling of
immigration compared with Republicans. But only 35 percent approved
of the Democrats' handling of the issue in March, the latest month
for which data is available, compared with 44 percent polled around
the time of Obama's re-election.
That's a problem for Democrats,
whose base of younger and minority voters are historically less
likely to vote in midterm years than Republican voters, who are
typically older and white.
Latino voters can be motivated by movement on immigration issues
even during midterms, said David Damore, a senior analyst at Latino
Decisions, a political research firm that tracks political opinions
of Latino voters. In 2010, anti-immigration stances by Republican
Senate candidates in Nevada and Colorado spurred Hispanics to the
polls, he said.
HOW FAR TO GO
The question for the administration, then, is how far to go.
Activists said Obama could expand the 2012 program known as deferred
action that permitted children brought into the United States
illegally by their parents to stay. The age cap for that could be
raised, for example, or other groups could be added.
What they really want - and what Republicans fervently oppose - is a
broad program that would let people who are not a priority for
deportation come forward, go through background checks, pay a fee
and get authorization to stay put.
That is unlikely to happen, and immigrants worried about being
deported and their supporters in the Latino community are prepared
to be disappointed.
"Those minimum changes will not take away that fear and I don't
think they will satisfy anybody," said Richard Morales, detention
prevention coordinator at PICO National Network, a community
The advocates' impatience has sometimes led to pushback from the
White House. Obama appeared visibly frustrated at a meeting with
them in February and said they should be directing their anger at
Congress, several attendees told Reuters.
"On the one hand, activists are never going to be happy," said
Gabriela Domenzain, a former aide on Obama's 2012 campaign and now a
partner in the Raben Group, a lobbying group. "This doesn't solve
the problem permanently that only passing legislation can do."
(Editing by Caren Bohan and Jan Paschal)
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