WASHINGTON — With a self-imposed deadline looming, President Barack Obama said Thursday he still intends to act on his own to change immigration policies but stopped short of reiterating his past vows to act by end of summer.
Obama raised the slim hope that Congress could take action on a broad immigration overhaul after the midterm elections in November. He said that if lawmakers did not pass an overhaul, “I’m going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”
But for the first time since pledging to act by summer’s end, he signaled that such a target date could slip. He said that the administration had been working to reduce the flow of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border and noted that the number of apprehensions at the border had fallen in August.
“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,” he said in a news conference where he also addressed Russian aggression in Ukraine and action against Islamic State militants.
Two months ago, Obama angrily conceded that the House did not intend to take up immigration legislation this year and ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to come up with actions the president could take on his own.
“I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay,” he said at the time.
Since then, the administration was forced to deal with the sharp rise of young migrants from Central America who were crossing the southwest border. Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the flow, a request that Republican lawmakers rejected.
At the same time, some Democrats worried that if Obama took action on his own to reduce deportations it would mobilize Republican voters in hotly contested Senate races.
Frank Sharry of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice said there were no indications the White House planned to delay the announcement, and lots of evidence Obama is preparing for an announcement in September.
“If for whatever reasons they decide to delay, it’s going to be a huge problem for an immigration reform movement that has worked tirelessly for years and been promised action for years,” Sharry said. “I don’t think people are going to take a delay without a big response.”
Obama said Thursday that addressing the inflow of unaccompanied minors has not stopped the process of looking into “how do we get a smart immigration system in place while we’re waiting for Congress to act.
“And it continues to be my belief that, if I can’t see the congressional action, that I need to do at least what I can in order to make the system work better.”
The most sweeping, controversial step under consideration involves halting deportation for millions, a major expansion of a 2012 Obama program that deferred prosecutions for those brought here illegally as children.
Roughly half a million people have benefited from that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
In a sign of how heated the demands on Obama to act have become, 145 protesters were arrested midday Thursday in front of the White House in an act of civil disobedience. Demanding a halt to deportations, protesters draped themselves in American flags and held signs saying “I am a witness for justice” as onlookers cheered them on. The U.S. Park Police said the protesters were charged with blocking the sidewalk.
Republicans are already hinting they’ll consider legal action to thwart what they’ve denounced as a violation of the separation of powers. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a conference call this month with GOP House members, accused Obama of “threatening to rewrite our immigration laws unilaterally.”
“If the president fails to faithfully execute the laws of our country, we will hold him accountable,” Boehner said, according to an individual who participated in the call.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted Thursday that Congress would not tackle an immigration overhaul before the fall elections.
“There are too many members of the House that are scared of the tea party, and they are afraid to death that they won’t get the extremist support in the election,” Nelson told reporters in Orlando, Florida. “There is nothing being done on immigration until after the election, and probably not until we get a better sense of where we’re going into next year.”
The House has passed legislation to block Obama from expanding DACA and, through its power of the purse, could attempt to cut off the funds that would be needed to implement the expansion. House Republicans could also consider widening or amending their existing lawsuit against Obama over his health care law, a case both parties have suggested could be a prelude to impeachment proceedings.