Amid pressure from Democrats worried about political backlash, President Obama will delay his promised executive actions to overhaul the immigration system until later this year, the White House said Saturday.
The decision is a clear reversal from late June, when Obama, frustrated by congressional deadlock on the issue, vowed to use the power of his office to make changes at the end of the summer. White House officials had signaled that Obama was considering drastic changes that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation.
But Democrats running in tough races in conservative-leaning states began to lobby the White House to delay the move until after the November midterm election. The pressure grew stronger after a wave of thousands of unaccompanied minor immigrants from Central America began arriving at the border, crowding detention centers and rocketing immigration into the headlines.
A White House official said Saturday that Obama still plans to use his authority to make "significant" changes to the system. Aides were worried that announcing those changes amid the campaign season would make the new program a target of political ads and a swarm of attacks.
"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 president will make his announcement before the end of the year," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Congressional Republicans denounced the White House announcement Saturday, charging the president with abusing executive authority.
"There is a never a 'right' time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action, but the decision to simply delay this deeply controversial and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action until after the election — instead of abandoning the idea altogether — smacks of raw politics," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Obama hinted last week that he was considering a delay as a vigorous debate waged among his advisors about the politics of the move. Democratic senators and their aides began pressing the White House to consider how the announcement could scramble their tight races such a short time before the election.
The White House had been reaching out to advocates and allies over the last several days, gauging reaction to the possible delay. Obama told reporters Friday that he had begun to review the recommendations he solicited from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., but dodged a question about whether he was worried about the political implications. The president, however, was slated to sit for an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" to air Sunday, and it was unlikely he could avoid discussing his plans much longer.
The decision was certain to deflate high hopes among immigration activists who have long pushed the president to accept the unlikelihood of bipartisan reform in Congress and do more to change the system on his own. This spring, leading Latino activists labeled Obama "deporter-in-chief," noting his record on deportation statistics and warning that the issue would be a blight on his civil rights legacy.
Some groups revived the label after news of the delay.
"Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we've received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone," said Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream. She said immigrants and advocates "are outraged and will take action. Obama's legacy with our communities: deporter."
Others expressed disappointment, but urged voters to direct their anger at Republicans who have held up legislation in the House, rather than the president.
"The White House's decision to delay executive action forces countless families to continue to wait in the shadows of fear. We are deeply disappointed but not paralyzed," Mary Kay Henry and Rocio Saenz, leaders of the Service Employees International Union, said in a joint statement. "We haven't forgotten how we first got here. Republicans failed the American people by refusing to vote on meaningful immigration reform. Holding them accountable in November is a promise that we intend to keep … and we refuse to become victims of 'wait' and the status quo."
The decision is the president's second broken promise on immigration. As a candidate in 2008, Obama vowed to introduce or throw his support behind overhaul legislation in his first year in office.
Amid a financial crisis and a push for healthcare reform, Obama did not endorse a set of immigration reform principles until 2011, a delay that disappointed Latino and immigration activists. In 2012, ahead of his reelection campaign, Obama won kudos from Latinos for enacting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed some immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors to avoid deportation.
Obama made immigration reform a top domestic priority of his second term. When a bipartisan Senate plan stalled in the Republican-led House, he asked his Homeland Security Secretary Johnson this spring to come up with list of recommended changes Obama would make without consent from Congress. The president said in June that he'd asked Johnson to return the report by the end of summer and vowed he would "act without delay."
Obama was considering a new program based on the deferred action model for young immigrants but aimed at undocumented immigrants with deep ties in the United States. Although the details were never publicized, officials and activists say the White House was looking at an option that could have affected up to 5 million people.
The size and timing of such a program, however, made Democrats nervous. The president's party is in danger of losing its majority in the Senate if Republicans net six seats in November. Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska all argued against Obama's executive action, saying Congress, not the president, should change immigration law.
White House officials say they were sympathetic to those worries of 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.