Democrats to White House: Immigration's your call
By: Manu Raju and Seung Min Kim
August 14, 2014 05:04 AM EDT
Senate Democratic leaders are grappling with how far to push President Barack Obama on immigration before the crucial midterm elections.
For all the insistence that Obama take bold action — and despite a furious push from immigration activists — there’s palpable fear that Obama could cause trouble for the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats if he decides to circumvent Congress before the elections to make immigration changes through executive action. Such a move could complicate the reelection bids of Democrats in red states like Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska — races that could determine whether the party will maintain its grip on the Senate.
The dynamic is leaving the Senate’s most powerful Democrats in a jam. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington all called for executive action to halt deportations. Schumer even said the White House should move on the matter “in October.”
But now the leaders are coy. Representatives for each of the senators refused to say this week whether their bosses want the president to move before November or wait until after the elections.
“The timing of it is entirely up to him,” Durbin spokesman Ben Marter said of the president.
Democrats are trying to shift focus back to the Republican controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already told Obama he has no plans to act on immigration this year.
“If House Republicans would just do their job and pass an immigration reform bill that fixes a broken system, then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson, who declined to comment further.
Added a Schumer spokesman: “The president would not be forced to even contemplate taking independent action to cope with our broken system had House Republicans not spent more than a year blocking the Senate’s already-passed bipartisan immigration reform legislation.” The spokesman also declined to weigh in further.
The White House declined to comment.
The debate reflects the balancing act that Democrats are walking on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue when it comes to immigration. Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are weighing calls from activists to do something to stem deportations but risk going too far and flipping the Senate to the GOP. That would give Republicans full control of Congress and an even more powerful platform to block immigration reform.
The GOP is already beginning to pounce on the issue, making immigration reform an issue in key Senate races.
Obama administration officials are deep into their review of immigration enforcement practices and are expected to take steps within weeks to ease deportations of certain immigrants living in the United States illegally — though the exact timing is a subject of hot speculation.
Though he long insisted that he had little legal authority to act on immigration, Obama said in June that he would take executive action on deportations this summer after it became clear House Republicans wouldn’t move a bill — heeding demands from Democratic leaders and immigration advocates, who blasted the administration for deporting the highest number of undocumented immigrants of any president.
The president is unlikely to halt deportations for all undocumented immigrants who would have become legalized under the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill that passed last year – the top demand of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and immigrant-rights organizations. But the administration is looking into relief for smaller populations based on criteria such as family ties or how long they have lived in the United States.
In a Univision interview this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) singled out family ties, saying parents of U.S. citizens or young undocumented immigrants should be granted the same protections as the so-called “Dreamers” who were shielded under a 2012 Obama administration directive. Pelosi also backs the call from Latino lawmakers to protect the estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants who would have qualified under the Senate bill, a spokeswoman said — a position that Durbin and Schumer have also endorsed.
“It would be my hope that the president’s lawyers would advise him on the broadest possible prosecutorial discretion,” Pelosi said during the interview.
With the prospects that the fallout could hurt their incumbents in conservative states, Democratic leaders in the Senate want little ownership of the timing of the president’s decision. At the same time, they don’t want to anger pro-immigration groups by publicly siding with red-state Democrats even though the Senate leadership has aggressively tried to protect their vulnerable members from taking tough votes and being cornered into uncomfortable positions all year.
Endangered Democrats have already pushed back on the president’s upcoming move. In an interview before the August recess, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas insisted that Obama needs statutory authority to act on deportations, saying: “I’m not for government by executive order.”
It’s little surprise that red-state Democrats are on the defensive over the issue. Every Democrat voted for the Senate’s immigration bill last year, a sweeping measure that ramped up border security, offered new visas to high-skill and temporary workers and created a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants here illegally.
But they are being whacked by their GOP opponents for supporting “amnesty” for those in the country illegally. And if Obama moves forward on his own, it’ll bring the issue back to the fore and could turn their races into referendums on the president.
“Our southern border, chaos and crime,” said a recent ad aired by Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican who is battling Pryor. “Washington made the mess. Sen. Mark Pryor voted for amnesty. Citizenship for illegals.”
Indeed, the recent surge of children from Central America has sharply focused public attention on border security and raised concerns about Obama’s handling of immigration issues.
About two-thirds of Americans view illegal immigration as a serious problem in the United States — a figure that surged 14 percentage points since May, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll from July. And 68 percent said they disapproved of Obama’s job performance on immigration policy, an increase of 8 points in those two months.
Still, immigration advocates aren’t easing their demands on Obama. They say the president is their last hope after House Republicans failed to bring up a legislative overhaul this year.
United We Dream, a national coalition of young undocumented immigrants, has aggressively lobbied Democratic senators such as Schumer and Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado to push Obama for deportation relief. That pressure on lawmakers won’t change, the group said.
Obama “has made certain promises to our community, and he has made those promises public,” said Lorella Praeli, the organization’s director of advocacy and policy. “The truth is, nothing and no one will stand in the way of relief for our communities, and we will make sure everyone is held accountable.”
“Our demands have been the same since we starting doing this more than a year ago,’ said Erika Andiola, the co-director of Dream Action Coalition who recently confronted Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) over his push to kill the 2012 Obama administration program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Deepak Bhagarva, the executive director of the Center for Community Change, encouraged Democratic leaders to keep up the pressure on the administration.
“If Senate Democrats are covertly trying to delay or dilute the executive actions, that would be viewed as a huge betrayal of Latino and immigrant communities with serious and lasting consequences,” he said.
While polls show that Democrats are on firm political ground in backing a sweeping immigration plan, party strategists fully acknowledge that the issue plays better in a presidential election year than it does a midterm year — particularly this year. That’s because the Hispanic population is far below the national average in each of those four red states — in addition to three states in which Democratic senators are retiring: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.
And in three other battleground states this year, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire, the small Latino population makes the immigration issue less potent for Democrats.
More liberal immigration policies seem most to favor Democrats this year in Colorado, a state where 21 percent of the population is Hispanic, 4 points higher than the national average and where Udall is aggressively battling for the Latino vote in his race against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner.
But his fellow Colorado senator, Michael Bennet, is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is tasked with protecting all of its endangered incumbents — not just Udall. Bennet’s office said in May that it encourages “the administration to pursue its efforts to prevent these innocent families from being ripped apart.” But when asked this week whether Obama should act before November, a Bennet spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Senate Democratic leaders they face their own internal pressures. Reid has relied heavily on the growing Latino population in his state, which powered him to an improbable election victory in 2010. He’d have to rely on them again should he run for reelection in 2016. The huge Latino population in Nevada could also be instrumental in state races this year, in which Reid has a major stake.
Similarly, Schumer and Durbin, members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that wrote the immigration reform bill, have faced their own pressures from advocates. Schumer’s office is occasionally the site of protests from pro-immigration activists — and the New York Democrat has made clear he’s on their side.
Murray of Washington, No. 4 in Democratic leadership, echoed the sentiment of the party’s senior members: The president must act with House action stalled, but the time frame is his decision.
“Now that House Republicans have made it clear that they won’t move on the Senate’s bipartisan bill in the coming months, Sen. Murray believes that President Barack Obama should take action to start fixing the broken immigration system once he completes his review,” Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick said.