Nearly 60,000 immigrants will be deported before November elections if the government holds its pace, and many of them might have earned tentative legal status had President Obama taken unilateral action to halt deportations.
Mr. Obama’s decision to put off any action until after midterm elections, which the White House leaked Saturday hours before he announced it himself in an interview with NBC, was mocked by Republicans and enraged immigrant rights groups, who said they felt betrayed after throwing their support to the president in the 2012 election.
In the near term, it could help several vulnerable Senate Democrats who feared that unilateral action by Mr. Obama doom their campaigns.
But outside such narrow partisan considerations, Mr. Obama’s decision managed to anger nearly everyone: Republicans who called it a cynical ploy, liberal Democrats who said they wished he had pressed forward, and immigrant rights activists who called it a cowardly move.
“Tens of thousands of human beings are likely to be separated from their families between now and the election,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, whose relationship with Mr. Obama grew testy over the summer as they sparred over how far the president would be willing to go to halt deportations.
“Their suffering, and that of their family members, who include U.S.-citizen children and spouses, should weigh on the consciences of each and every person responsible for this delay,” she said.
Mr. Obama imposed an end-of-summer deadline for taking some form of action to halt deportations. Among the options he was considering were expanding nondeportation policies to include illegal immigrants who have children who are already citizens of the U.S., and parents of so-called dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors and to whom Mr. Obama granted tentative status in 2012.
Republicans and some legal analysts have questioned whether Mr. Obama has the authority to make those moves.
In an interview taped Saturday for NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the president didn’t doubt his legal standing but said the timing, just ahead of congressional elections, was wrong. He said he needed to do more work to convince voters he is right.
He acknowledged that the surge of unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border, which he initially dismissed as a Central American problem, exposed holes in the U.S. immigration system.
“The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem,” the president said. “I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest denied last week that politics were playing a role in Mr. Obama’s thinking.
“That’s not what the president is focused on. What the president is focused on is trying to solve problems,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s decision to put off action suggests the White House still believes Democrats can win enough seats to preserve a majority in the Senate. Republicans would need to net six seats to win control.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed unilateral action, called Mr. Obama’s decision cynical.
“The president isn’t saying he’ll follow the law — he’s just saying he’ll go around the law once it’s too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections. This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy — it’s Washington politics at its worst,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Senate Democrats, though, said blame should fall on Republicans, and particularly House leaders who refused to bring the Senate’s immigration bill to the floor for a vote. That bill would have granted a path to citizenship to almost all illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The Obama administration was deporting about 1,010 immigrants a day in the first half of the fiscal year. At that pace, it would deport nearly 60,000 more before Election Day.
Most of the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants have little fear of deportation. Indeed, a Washington Times analysis this year estimated that an illegal immigrant who has not crossed the border recently and doesn’t have a criminal record has less than a 1 percent chance a year of being deported.
But the weekend decision to delay action does reinforce long-standing questions immigrant rights advocates have had about Mr. Obama’s commitment — questions that date back to his days in the Illinois Senate and then as a U.S. senator, when he voted to build the border fence.
When Mr. Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised Hispanic audiences that he would fight for an immigration bill in his first year in the White House. Instead, his priorities were health care reform, the economic stimulus, addressing climate change and other issues.
Months before his re-election in 2012, Mr. Obama announced he would grant tentative legal status to young adults who came to the U.S. illegally as children, who completed a high school education and who had no criminal records.
More than a half-million illegal immigrants took advantage of that move, and Mr. Obama won an overwhelming percentage of the Hispanic vote in his re-election bid.
Some legal analysts questioned whether Mr. Obama had the legal authority to halt deportations, and a federal judge in Texas concluded it was illegal — though the judge ruled that he didn’t have jurisdiction over the case, leaving the president’s policies in place.
Activists had been calling on Mr. Obama to expand tentative legal status to include illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children, and of the young adults who gained status under the 2012 policy.