President Obama faces an increasingly tough tightrope on immigration, with advocacy groups demanding he take the lead on the issue but Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill saying the more involved he gets, the less likely a deal becomes.
Immigrant rights activists, who for years targeted Congress and congressional Republicans in particular, have turned some of their fire on Mr. Obama, arguing that he needs to show more leadership in working with Capitol Hill to strike a deal and in doing what he can unilaterally to stop deportations.
Seeking to increase public pressure, some activists have engaged in civil disobedience by chaining themselves to the White House fence or blocking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, preventing authorities from conducting deportations on several occasions.
“We are holding the Democrats and the president responsible as well,” said Marisa Franco, who leads the Not One More Deportation campaign for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “We don’t think the only way to go is to just pressure the Republicans, because the fact of the matter is Democrats have also benefited from having this issue be a political issue for a long time.”
Mr. Obama has entered his second term vowing to make immigration a major push, but budget and economic issues, as well as international hot spots such as Syria, have consumed much of his time.
On Thursday, the president gingerly dipped his toe back into the debate, delivering a 12-minute speech at the White House challenging congressional Republicans to restart the debate.
“Now it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide whether reform becomes a reality or not,” Mr. Obama said.
He pointed to a bill that House Democratic leaders are backing, which is close to the Senate’s immigration bill — though Democrats cut out all of the stiff border security provisions that enabled the Senate bill to pass with bipartisan support.
But that legislation underscores the problems.
Not a single Republican has signed on as a co-sponsor, and even some immigrant rights groups have panned the Democrats’ bill, saying it suggests the party is trying to play politics rather than pass legislation that will solve the problem.
In a letter to Mr. Obama last week, one advocacy group urged the president not to follow House Democrats’ lead and instead make meaningful outreach to Republicans.
“Make a determined and honest effort to reach across the aisle to moderate Republicans and make something happen,” the Dream Action Coalition said. “Make phone calls to the speaker and Republican leadership on immigration. Organize meetings in the White House with the Republican rank-and-file.”
Two Republicans working on their own plans have said they will write bills to legalize illegal immigrants — though they apparently would stop short of creating a specific pathway to citizenship, which Democrats insist is a requirement for getting their support.
House Republican leaders are intent on dividing the immigration issue into a series of bills to deal with it in pieces. Committees have cleared specific bills dealing with border security, interior enforcement and legal guest workers, and a bill to legalize young illegal immigrants has been in the works for months. Democrats also have rebuffed that approach.
On Thursday, several Republicans compared the broad, Senate-style “comprehensive” immigration bill to the president’s health care law, which is suffering major birthing pains as the administration tries to work out kinks in the health care exchanges.