Insisting that factors beyond his control had created an untenable political situation, President Obama said Saturday that he would postpone his promised executive action to make drastic changes to the immigration system — a delay that leaves tens of thousands of immigrants open to deportation and millions more in limbo.
The president still plans to use his authority to make changes to the system after the November election, using the time until then to educate the public on the situation, he said in a taped interview to air Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country," Obama said. "But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration."
But his decision to delay changes drew ire from all sides: Republicans who still oppose any later executive action as a power grab; members of the president's own party, who see the delay as putting Democratic votes at risk; and immigration advocates, who expressed bitter disappointment and spoke of being misled by the administration after months of working together.
"Today, President Obama let the politics of fear get in the way of standing up for justice and fairness," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, one of more than 180 Latino, Asian American, labor and religious groups that had encouraged the president to act.
Obama's decision reverses a public promise he made to those supporters in June. Frustrated by Congress' lack of action, he vowed at the time to use the power of his office to overhaul the system at the end of the summer. White House officials had signaled that the president was considering drastic changes that would allow millions of immigrants living in the country illegally to temporarily avoid deportation.
The pressure to act grew complicated as a wave of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America began arriving at the border over the spring and summer, crowding detention centers and rocketing immigration into the headlines.
Eventually, the self-imposed deadline proved too big of a political risk, and Obama partly blamed that surge and the subsequent public outcry and confusion over it for his decision to postpone action.
"The politics did shift midsummer because of that problem," he said in the television interview, adding: "I also want to make sure that the public understands why we're doing this, why it's the right thing for the American people, why it's the right thing for the American economy."
In the meantime, he was left to grapple with the fallout of further delay.
As word spread Saturday, Republican leaders fumed because of what some candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called the "cynical" motivations behind the delay and because the White House was still talking about a significant change at the end of the year.
"This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy — it's Washington politics at its worst," McConnell said in a statement.
Hard-line Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions put it more bluntly: "The only thing that is more shocking than Senate Democrats' support for the president's planned executive amnesty is the cravenness of asking him to proceed beginning the day after the midterms."
The president's new timeline could depress turnout among Democratic voters and, in some key races, Latinos. White House officials say they are sympathetic to those concerns from endangered Democrats.
The crisis at the border this summer has elevated the issue in voters' minds, making it a more potent attack line for Republicans than even six months ago. Furthermore, the White House has no interest in the president or immigration politics being blamed — fairly or not — for Democratic losses in the Senate in November. Obama still hopes some immigration legislation may pass and believes it is good politics for Democrats to back an overhaul, a White House official said.
If Republicans win the majority in the Senate this fall and control both houses of Congress, they may be inclined to address the issue. But Republicans disagree even among themselves on immigration, and their proposals are likely to be heavy on enforcement and security rather than options to legalize the status of immigrants that Democrats could support.
"The outcome of these Senate races will not change the political landscape for immigration reform," predicted progressive Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "Whether won or lost, the president will still have to act alone to get this done."
One senior White House advisor said Saturday that there would still be time for Obama to implement significant changes at the end of the year if Congress failed to act. And senior Democrats said they would back the president in the most sweeping efforts.
"I know that the president is determined to act," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Saturday. "And when he does, I support a broad use of his authority to fix as much of our broken immigration system as he can."
Administration officials have operated on the assumption that they will need time to implement a truly ambitious new government program, especially if it involves enrolling millions of people. As the clock ticks, said one aide, Obama's viable options wane.
Among the most ambitious ideas that officials have considered are administrative changes to grant work permits to immigrants in the country illegally whose children are either U.S. citizens or otherwise legal residents. An estimated 11 million immigrants now live in the U.S. without proper documentation. Though not allowed to work or pay taxes, many of them work illegally and care for family members who are here legally.
The newly revealed delay on White House action means further suspense for immigrants at risk of deportation and may limit how many can enroll in any eventual administrative program. Whatever Obama orders under his executive power is subject to change by the next president, but White House officials believe it will be harder for a new president to wipe out a program if a critical mass of people are enrolled in it, and that motivates them to act as soon as possible.
Obama's decision also dealt a setback to his long-running strategy of using executive action to get around congressional deadlock with the stroke of his pen, but a White House official pledged the president would act.
"Because he wants to do this in a way that's sustainable and that's freer of the political environment we are currently in," the official said, "the president will make his announcement before the end of the year."
The delay only intensifies the pressure on the president to deliver sweeping reforms this fall, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy organization America's Voice.
"There's only a few moments when you can make history," said Sharry, who said his group was "bitterly disappointed" with the delay. "The pressure is on them to do more."