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.
“We don’t need another massive, Obamacare-like bill that is full of surprises and dysfunction after it becomes law,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has written some of the piecemeal bills.
Some key Republicans also have said the way Mr. Obama treated House Republicans during this month’s spending and debt debates — in which he refused to negotiate with them over any of their demands — has soured the working relationship.
Some Democrats agree, saying that while Mr. Obama can cheerlead for action from the sidelines, he should not get involved in the negotiations.
On Wednesday, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has taken the lead on this issue for his party, went to the House floor to invite Republicans to work around the president.
“Those on the other side of the aisle say they do not trust the president and can’t work with him. Well, OK, fine. Then work with us,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “There are 435 of us, we need 218 to pass a bill and the president doesn’t get a vote.”
Complicating matters is the short schedule for the rest of this year. The House likely has only five more weeks of business planned for 2013, and Republicans in the chamber are preoccupied with writing a 2014 budget and fighting the president’s health care law.
That has left immigrant rights advocates arguing that Mr. Obama can take unilateral action.
They want him to expand his 2012 nondeportation order, which grants tentative legal status to young illegal immigrants, to include most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country.
“Our position is that President Obama can actually do something today, right now,” Ms. Franco told The Washington Times.
She said if Mr. Obama took that step, it would force Republicans to confront the issue and could advance the debate.
Mr. Obama has said that while his nondeportation policy for young illegal immigrants was legal, he doubts he has the authority to do a blanket policy for all illegal immigrants. But the activists dispute that.
“It’s very clear that there is a legal way to do this. It’s a question of will he do it politically,” Ms. Franco said. “That’s why we’ve issued this call for nonviolent civil disobedience, focused on ICE, and being willing to name the president as partially responsible.”