A surge of young immigrants crossing the border is prompting President Obama to delay his plans to announce more lenient deportation policies, a sign that the White House has begun to guard against political fallout from the unprecedented influx of minors.
The administration is slowing its timetable for announcing revisions to deportation policies, including one that would stop most deportations of foreigners with no criminal convictions other than immigration violations, according to a senior official familiar with the White House deliberations.
Obama's advisors are also reconsidering whether to move ahead with a separate, still-tentative plan before the November midterm election that could allow the parents of young people who were brought into the country illegally to stay and work, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
An estimated 52,000 minors, many from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have crossed the border since October, nearly double the number of young immigrants caught crossing during the same period a year earlier. Republicans have blamed the flow on lax enforcement, but administration officials have linked it to increasing violence in Central American cities and false rumors that children who reach the U.S. receive residency permits.
A delay would be an abrupt shift for a White House that for months has promised to take executive action to bypass House Republicans, who have refused to act on immigration legislation that passed the Senate a year ago.
White House advisors are telling lawmakers and advocates that the rise in minors crossing the border — and the Republicans' claim that the administration's deportation policies are to blame — could swiftly drain political support for the sort of immigration reform Democrats have advocated, the official said.
Another senior administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that the plans were on hold.
"There is no rollout plan, but the work is continuing," the official said, adding that the White House remains focused on trying to pass legislation. If lawmakers leave for their August recess without making progress, the White House will then reassess options, the official said.
"We haven't reached any conclusions about that, not while legislation is still pending."
The Senate-passed bill would create a path to legalization for most of the 11 million people in the U.S. unlawfully and boost border security spending by more than $46 billion over 10 years. But with the effort to pass immigration legislation in the House stalled, Obama's promise to take executive action to make the immigration system more 'humane" had become the focus for advocates and the administration.
Department of Homeland Security officials over the last three months have condensed and rewritten a patchwork of directives created over decades into a single set of instructions that would tell immigration officers whom to put at the front of the line for removal from the country.
The proposed changes would in effect have stopped most deportations of foreigners with no criminal convictions other than immigration violations, and further focused enforcement efforts mostly at those charged with or convicted of felony crimes or those who pose more of a threat to public safety.
Administration officials have acknowledged that Obama's unilateral move would drive Republicans away from the negotiating table and probably close the window for passing an overhaul of immigration laws. But White House officials also believe that if Obama acted on his own it would drive Latino voters further away from the GOP, damaging its chances of winning the presidential election in 2016.
Obama already delayed the changes once, saying he wanted to give lawmakers more time to act. He said in May that he would give Congress until the end of the summer to pass legislation.
But top officials who were closely involved in developing the new enforcement policies are now focusing on the administration's response to the surge at the border. The administration has called in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, testifying on the Hill on Tuesday, said he was considering "every conceivable lawful option to address this situation."
House Republicans have called on the administration to send the National Guard to secure the border.
"There's a slowdown, but I don't think it's because they're dragging their feet," said Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress. "I think it's because they themselves are running to try to keep up with the ever-changing facts at the border."
Kelley said she believed the administration would pick up where it left off, under pressure from advocates who have not been shy about their campaign to persuade the president to act. Obama ordered Johnson to conduct the review of deportation policy only after advocates had begun to label him "deporter in chief."
"There is going to be a burst of advocacy that is going to be aimed at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., at the administration. They can't actually avoid this topic," Kelley said.
In addition to revising the deportation policies, the White House had begun to develop a broader expansion of an Obama administration program to allow the parents of young people who were brought to the country illegally to stay and work.
The program, which was tentatively slated to be announced this fall, was to be modeled on the 2012 program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which stopped the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people, so-called dreamers brought to the U.S. as children.
Now, some White House political strategists believe that expanding such a program could create too much of a liability in the midterm races and prefer to wait until after the election, the official familiar with the discussions said.
Immigration reform advocates were not pleased by the possibility of a delay.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group, says he sees Republicans trying to use the children at the border to "bully" the president into backing off executive action.
The White House should be able to separate the immediate crisis from the long-term problems Obama promised to address, Sharry said, adding that the president "has not been a profile in courage on immigration."
Johnson is continuing to "evaluate the options" for any executive action, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
"None of those will be a substitute for the kind of congressional action that we'd like to see," he said.
As Obama has pushed and failed to win a major immigration overhaul, his public approval rating on immigration has taken a hit. A Gallup survey taken this month found just 31% of Americans approve of his handling of the issue, representing a drop of 8 percentage points since August. The survey captured some of the cross pressures Obama faces. The growing disapproval crossed party lines, though a mere 8% of Republicans said they approved of Obama's immigration policies, the survey showed.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a central architect of the Senate immigration bill, said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Wall Street Journal that the chances for passing a bill were slim.
"I can't tell you that we have a great shot at it, but I know the consequences of failure," said McCain.
He added that he agreed with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that unless Republicans help pass immigration reform, the party's nominee for president in 2016 would lose.
McCain said the flood of children from Central America crossing the Southwestern border "argues for immigration reform, not against."
Conservatives have been looking for excuses to push off voting on an immigration bill, said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist at the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based group that advocates for immigration reform. The young border crossers gave the House leadership another excuse to put off a vote, he said.