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updated: 7/22/2014 11:20 AM

Obama alone will decide immigration dispute

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Bloomberg News

President Barack Obama doesn't control Vladimir Putin, climate change or an opposition party dedicated to thwarting his every move. But he has extensive influence over the status of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the course of the political battle about their fate.

The Obama administration's bumbling response to the influx of migrant children from Central America has complicated the politics of immigration. Scenes of young immigrants in U.S. custody have emboldened conservative opponents, lent credence to complaints that the border is insecure and painted the White House a soft shade of incompetent. Even for voters willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, the situation is unsettling. It's hard to see how Obama could make a major move -- deferring deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants settled in the U.S., for example -- without first halting the youthful tide from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Yet it's possible that the influx could decline relatively quickly. The New York Times reported that the flow may already be subsiding as a result of policing efforts south of the border, dashed hopes brought on by failed attempts to migrate and the ever-shifting winds of rumor, which played a role in encouraging mass migration in the first place.

If the border stabilizes, Obama will be able to shift focus to the undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. I asked University of Oregon political scientist Daniel Tichenor how extensive Obama's executive powers on immigration are. Tichenor's answer, via e-mail:

In the absence of Congressional action/legislation, the White House has broad authority. This is especially true when presidents are responding to large-scale and uninvited entries into U.S. territory. Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK invoked parole powers to assist European refugees in the context of World War II displacement and later the Cold War. Asylum seekers and other migrants who enter U.S. territory for relief without prior authorization present a more immediate dilemma that our chief executives have considerable authority to address.

Precedents (noted in Tichenor's excellent book on the history of U.S. immigration politics) are plentiful. Harry Truman issued an executive order in 1945 extending relief to tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn Europe. Dwight Eisenhower used a loophole in the McCarran-Walter Act to admit 30,000 Hungarian refugees after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. When Lyndon Johnson signed a landmark 1965 immigration law, he said he would use his parole power to open the nation to refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba. (Congress later passed legislation facilitating asylum for Cubans.) Likewise, Richard Nixon used executive power to enable more than 40,000 Czechs on travel permits to stay in the U.S. after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Additional Czech refugees were admitted from other countries.

None of these actions was on the scale that pro-immigration advocates are urging on Obama. Thousands are not millions. But the same principle of parole power could extend protection to, for example, the roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with children or spouses who are either citizens or legal residents. Pro-immigration activists want even more. "We've been very clear with the president," e-mailed Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration group. "We want him to use every ounce of his existing legal authority to protect as many undocumented immigrants as possible."

Political constraints on Obama may be less onerous than they appear. If Obama defers deportation for a large number of undocumented immigrants, calls for his impeachment may expand beyond the back benches of Congress. But Obama has already deferred deportation for the young "Dreamers" who qualified for his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. When House Speaker John Boehner outlined his proposed lawsuit against the president for allegedly exceeding his powers, Boehner, no doubt mindful of his party's poor reputation among Hispanic and Asian voters, focused on Obama's implementation of the health-care law and left DACA out of the complaint.

A broad amnesty would no doubt inspire legal actions and political recriminations. But Obama is already reviled by anti-immigration activists and Republicans, who will be no more willing to compromise tomorrow than today. Perhaps foolishly, Obama whetted the appetites of pro-immigration forces for bold executive action. Their energy and expectations are high. With Democrats on the cusp of solidifying Hispanic support, perhaps for a very long time, the prospect of alienating Hispanic voters through timidity or inaction may now be the more dangerous route.

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