WASHINGTON -- With prospects for real immigration reform fading, President Barack Obama is yielding to pressure from some of his staunchest allies and looking for ways to act without Congress to ease the suffering caused by deportation.
An Oval Office meeting with three Latino lawmakers brought about a late-night announcement from the White House on Thursday: Obama is directing his homeland security chief, Jeh Johnson, to review America's deportation program, with an eye toward finding more humane ways to enforce the law without contravening it.
It was unexpected, coming from a president who said as recently as last week that when it came to deportations, he's already stretched his presidential powers to the max.
Preferring a lasting legislative solution for one of Obama's top priorities, the White House had wanted to avoid this course, knowing that any steps Obama takes that are perceive as overreaching will only give Republicans excuses to avoid dealing with immigration. After all, the GOP has already cast Obama as a president gone wild, citing endless changes to his health care law and his move to allow children brought to the U.S. illegally to stay here.
But what started as ordinary griping from a constituency that's been among Obama's most loyal has spiraled, with prominent Latino leaders denouncing Obama as the "deporter in chief." Advocates that had long given Obama the benefit of the doubt determined that his persistent efforts to push lawmakers to act were not enough -- they were done waiting for Congress.
"It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the president," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., adding that the White House had been "dormant for too long."
What is not clear is how far Obama will go -- or what options are even available to mitigate the pain without consent from Congress.
White House officials declined to answer questions Thursday about what the government could do to make deportation more humane or whether there's a timeline for Homeland Security to finish an inventory and report back to Obama. But immigration activists will likely renew their call for Obama to halt deportations of parents of children brought to the U.S. illegally, among other steps.
"The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system," read a statement from Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney.
The conversation will start Friday, when Obama plans to meet with organizations working to pass bipartisan immigration legislation.
Separation of families is, in part, an incidental consequence of Obama's 2012 executive order that removed the threat of deportation for kids brought to the U.S. illegally, but did not extend that protection to their parents. A former law professor, Obama has insisted that he's already "stretched my administrative capacity very far."
"I cannot ignore those laws any more than I could ignore any of the other laws that are on the books," Obama said last week in a virtual town hall with Spanish-language media outlets.
Gutierrez, who represents a largely Hispanic district in Obama's hometown of Chicago, exemplifies the shift that's occurred among many immigration advocates. A liberal Democrat, Gutierrez has become a vocal critic of Obama on immigration, and on the House floor last week called Obama the "deporter in chief," parroting a nickname given to him a day earlier by the head of the National Council of La Raza, a powerful advocacy group.
Under Obama's leadership, almost 2 million people have been removed from the U.S.
So as grumblings among Latino members of Congress grew louder on Thursday, Obama invited Gutierrez and two other Congressional Hispanic Caucus members to a meeting at the White House that wasn't listed on Obama's public schedule. After the meeting disbanded, the White House said Obama still intends to pressure Republicans to pass an immigration overhaul, but would take another look at deportation policies in the meantime.
A top second-term priority for Obama, immigration appeared to be an area of potential bipartisan agreement coming out of the 2012 election, in which Republicans lost the Hispanic vote by a wide margin. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June with strong bipartisan support that would create a pathway for citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, tighten border security, and establish new visa and enforcement programs.
But the measure stalled in the House, despite calls for lawmakers to act from Republican leaders, business groups, religious organizations and labor. Although House Republicans said they wanted to pursue their own, piecemeal approach, Speaker John Boehner has acknowledged that stands little chance of happening this year, as Congress becomes consumed with midterm elections.