WASHINGTON -- As Republican leaders dampen expectations for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House is hoping the GOP resistance is temporary and tactical, and it is resisting some political allies' pressure for President Barack Obama to take matters into his own hands and ease his administration's deportation record.
For a president seeking a legacy piece of legislation, the current immigration debate represents a high wire act. He could act alone to slow deportations, probably dooming any chance of a permanent and comprehensive overhaul. Yet if he shows too much patience, the opportunity to fix immigration laws as he wants could well slip away.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall midterm elections, saying Republicans had trouble trusting that Mr. Obama would implement all aspects of an immigration law.
White House officials say they believe that Mr. Boehner ultimately wants to get it done. But they acknowledge that the speaker faces stiff resistance from House conservatives who oppose any form of legalization for immigrants who have crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas. As well, Republicans are eager to keep this election year's focus on controversial aspects of Mr. Obama's health care law.
Mr. Obama is willing to give Mr. Boehner space to operate and to tamp down the conservative outcry that greeted immigration overhaul principles the speaker brought forward last week. For now, the White House is simply standing behind a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate last year, but is not trying to press Mr. Boehner on how to proceed in the GOP-controlled House.
"That news yesterday was disappointing, but not entirely surprisingly," White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said. "It's a difficult issue for them."
On CNN Friday, Vice President Joe Biden said Mr. Obama awaiting House action before responding. "What you don't want to do is create more problems for John Boehner in being able to bring this up," he said.
The White House view could be overly optimistic, playing down the strength of opposition to action this year. For Republicans, the immigration issue poses two political challenges: In the short-run, it displays intraparty divisions when they want to use their unified opposition to the health care law as a key 2014 election issue. Immigration distracts from that strategy. But failure to pass an immigration overhaul would be a significant drag on chances for a Republican to win the 2016 presidential election if angry Latino voters mobilize to vote for the Democratic nominee.
Making the case for a delay, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there's "overwhelming support for doing nothing this year." Mr. Labrador -- who worked with a small group of Republicans and Democrats on comprehensive immigration overhaul last year, then abandoned the negotiations -- said it would be a mistake to have an internal GOP battle. He argued for waiting until next year, when the Republicans hope to gain control in the Senate.
Democratic officials familiar with White House thinking say there is also a possibility that the House could act in November or December, during a lame-duck session of Congress after the elections. That would require swift work in a short time.
The longer the immigration issue remains unresolved, the more immigrant advocates will pressure Mr. Obama to act alone and ease deportations undertaken by his administration. Since he took office in January 2009, more than 1.9 million immigrants have been deported.
"Inevitably, more and more advocates will be calling on the president to stop and roll back the deportation machinery," said executive director Frank Sharry of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "It is a source of tremendous anger, frustration on the part of immigrants and their allies that Obama is deporting people today that would benefit from immigration reform tomorrow."
The White House insists that the president is following the law and can't act unilaterally to change it, a view advocacy groups dispute. "The administration has both the legal authority and moral authority to make changes that would reduce the pain and suffering in the community right now," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
Such advocates dismiss Republican claims that Mr. Obama can't be counted on to enforce the border security components of a new immigration law. Mr. Boehner said Thursday that the public and many GOP members "don't trust that the reform we're talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be."
Mr. Sharry called Mr. Boehner's remarks a "flimsy excuse," given that Mr. Obama has "deported more people than ever, that net unauthorized migration at the border is zero or less, that we've doubled the number of border patrol in the last decade to 21,000."