Boehner vs. The Base on Immigration

Time is running out for the House Republicans to pass an immigration bill. If they don’t, activists hope President Obama will act swiftly and decisively.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

House Speaker John Boehner may have enraged conservatives last week when he re-enacted GOPers whining about taking a vote on immigration reform, but his improv did little to change the assumptions among immigration activists that President Obama will act unilaterally on immigration reform if House Republicans fail to move their own legislation this year.

“I’m in the camp that would much prefer that Congress move to pass something,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform advocacy organization. “I think if they don’t, the president will be forced to act and I hope he acts boldly and I hope he protects a lot of people.”

Sharry, like many in the reform community, said he believes that Boehner genuinely wants to see reform pass the House. But the ongoing clashes inside the GOP over immigration reform and other issues have left activists with falling expectations that Boehner can convince his fractured caucus to move any meaningful legislation before the 2014 elections.

“I haven’t given up hope completely, but my goodness, [House Republicans] issue principles one week and seven days later they have to slam the brakes on,” Sharry said. “They have such an easy time getting to ‘no’ and such a hard time getting to ‘yes’ that it’s hard to be optimistic.”

A senior Democratic aide with direct knowledge of House negotiations said expectations are similarly low inside the Capitol. Despite positive comments from Reps. Joe Barton and Cathy McMorris Rogers on the prospects for reform late last week, the aide said that Republicans have not finished drafting legislative language for their primary reform bill, a difficult and time-consuming job. As GOP progress slowly grinds on, the aide said Democratic lawmakers are increasingly acting under the assumption that it will be Obama, not Boehner, who makes the first substantive move on immigration reform.

“I think for once the president might show some leadership,” the aide said. “We’ll see.”

The prospects of White House action come after months of impassioned private requests, along with withering public criticism, from immigration activists who have lashed out at Obama for pursuing aggressive deportation policies while also taking a backseat to Congress on comprehensive reform legislation.

In early March, Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, dubbed Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief” in a speech to her members.

“We respectfully disagree with the president on his ability to stop unnecessary deportations,” Murguia said. “He can stop tearing families apart. He can stop throwing communities and businesses into chaos. He can stop turning a blind eye to the harm being done. He does have the power to stop this. Failure to act will be a shameful legacy for his presidency.”

A month later, Obama’s new secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, announced that he would be reviewing immigration enforcement policies inside the administration, including the rate and reasons behind the nearly 2 million deportations that DHS has overseen since Obama assumed office in 2009.

The Johnson review is seen by many as a precursor to two options that the president could take to curb or even stop deportations until Congress passes immigration reform in the future.

The first course would see the president announce reforms to current immigration enforcement measures that critics say are so broadly written that criminal and non-criminal immigrants are often given the same priority for detainment and deportation. The result is a dragnet of expulsions for many longtime, otherwise law-abiding immigrants with dependent families still in the United States.

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The second option would see the president expand upon DACA, the so-called DREAM Act executive order Obama issued in 2012 that allowed the minor children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and while the parents work legally for the time being. As with the DREAMers, activists are pushing the president to halt deportations and give temporary work permits to broad groups of undocumented immigrants, possibly including the 8 million immigrants who would be eligible for legal status under the Senate-passed immigration bill, until Congress acts on immigration legislation in the future.

The AFL-CIO has urged the president to pursue both options, as have La Raza and other pro-reform groups. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez has publicly called on Obama to significantly slow deportations, while New York’s Chuck Schumer warned Republicans in the wake of Johnson’s announcement that they could help pass comprehensive reform or “sit idly by and watch the President greatly curtail deportations while 11 million continue to live in limbo.”

Democratic and Republican leaders agree that the best hope for House action on immigration seems to be between June, when the House returns from Memorial Day recess and the Virginia primaries, and August, when the five-week recess and nearly all subsequent legislation will be consumed by re-election politics on both sides of the aisle.

But it may have been Boehner himself who gave the most honest and accurate assessment of the chances of immigration reform passing the House this year, even as he was mocking members of his own caucus.

“I think we should,” Boehner said of passing immigration reform. “But the appetite for doing this is not real good.”