By Laura Meckler
Move to Ease Deportations Could Be Put Off Until After Democrats’ Fight to Retain Senate
Republicans say Mr. Obama would exceed his legal authority by acting without congressional approval, and several Democrats running in conservative states have urged him in recent weeks not to act on his own. Now, White House officials are debating whether to put off some or all of his new policy until after the November election, in which control of the Senate is at stake, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The internal debate comes as the White House has received good news on what has been a major immigration problem: Government figures show the summer surge in unaccompanied children illegally crossing the Southwest border has significantly slowed.
During the first 25 days of August, an average of 104 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended each day trying to illegally cross the Southwest border. That is less than a third the rate recorded in May and June, when about 350 children were being caught daily, according to new data from the Department of Homeland Security.
The daily rate of unaccompanied-minor apprehensions is now lower than it has been in any month since early 2013, well before the surge in child migrants began. Some 2,604 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in the first 25 days of August, far less than the more than 10,000 in May and June. The falloff reflects fewer attempted crossings.
As a result, the Department of Health and Human Services is no longer looking for places to open temporary shelters, a scramble that had set off controversies in communities across the country. In addition, the agency is no longer housing children at three military bases that had been set up for temporary use.
The drop in apprehensions theoretically could give Mr. Obama more freedom to pursue the expansive changes to immigration policy that he is now considering. If the border-crossing numbers had remained as high as they were in June, Mr. Obama might have found it harder to ease deportation rules.
But even with the numbers falling, the White House is considering holding off on all or perhaps just part of the executive action, at least until after the election.
Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Begich in Alaska and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, all in tough re-election races, have said immigration should be addressed by Congress, not the White House.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Obama signaled that his timeline was unclear. Asked whether he was thinking of delaying an announcement, he suggested that the child-migration situation could affect his timing. “Some of these things do affect timelines, and we’re just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done,” he said.
Mr. Obama faces intense pressure from immigrant-rights advocates to move forward as planned. He already has pushed back his timeline for taking executive action once this year.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said that “if the president bows to Democratic pressure to back off his commitment to taking executive action in the coming weeks,” then the party would appear “weak-kneed,” and Mr. Obama will have promised “more than he delivers.”
Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Mr. Obama’s executive action on immigration would be unpopular no matter when he made it. “Whether President Obama declares executive amnesty in September, October or November, he has neither the legal authority nor the public support to do it,” he said.
In addition to scaling back deportations, Mr. Obama is also considering changes requested by business groups to make more visas available for legal immigration, people familiar with White House deliberations have said.
One person familiar with the White House conversations said it is almost certain that Mr. Obama will expand a program that now gives work permits to certain young people who were brought to the U.S. as children. How many people would benefit depends on several conditions not yet set, such as the length of time someone must have lived in the country to qualify.
Large numbers of minors had been crossing the border this summer, driven in part by gang violence and economic hardship in Central American countries. Officials are not certain why the number has fallen.
Some point to an intense effort to communicate to Central Americans, who account for the bulk of the migrants, that minors who arrive here illegally will not be given permission to stay. In addition, the Mexican government has increased border security on its southern border, an effort to stop migrants earlier in their journey north.
“The situation at the border remains fluid,” said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “It is too early to tell whether these trends will be sustained over time.”