WASHINGTON (AP) — To the frustration of many of his supporters, President Barack Obama is backing away from immigration changes he could make on his own. He is kicking the issue to House Republicans instead, despite mounting evidence they won't address the millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States.
This week, lawmakers from both parties summarily declared immigration-overhaul efforts dead after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of a fellow Republican who criticized him as too soft on the issue. But Obama still voices hope Congress will act.
"Our strategy has not changed," says White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. "The impetus for action remains on the House."
It's an approach that's drawing friendly fire from immigration advocates who say Obama has been sitting on his hands long enough. For starters, they want immediate action to slow deportations.
But the White House wants to ensure that if and when an overhaul ultimately dies in Congress, Republicans can't claim it was Obama who pulled the plug. Instead, Obama hopes his strategy will allow Democrats down the road to put all the blame on Republicans for failing to deal with immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
It's not as if Obama could legalize an estimated 11.5 million people with a wave of his hand.
Last month in the Oval Office, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson presented him with a basket of options he'd developed after the president personally ordered a review of how he could make deportation policy more humane, said a senior White House official. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.
Johnson's options were narrow and would affect only small groups of immigrants facing deportation, the official said — a far cry from the across-the-board freeze many immigration advocates are demanding.
Even so, Obama directed Johnson to hold off. Republicans were arguing that if Obama acted unilaterally, he would prove he can't be trusted to enforce immigration laws and would doom prospects for the legislative overhaul he so badly wants. So Obama decided to wait until it was certain House Republicans wouldn't act during a narrow summertime window before the midterm elections.
For many lawmakers, that window closed this week. Cantor was trounced in his Virginia primary by an obscure, underfunded professor who had accused him of supporting "amnesty" and open borders. Cantor denied that, but no matter. Members of both parties said Republicans would draw a clear lesson: GOP voters will punish anyone who doesn't take a firm stance on immigration — even the House's No. 2 Republican.