WASHINGTON — The crisis on the border with Mexico has overtaken President Barack Obama's plans to use executive action to reshape the nation's immigration system, forcing him to confront a new set of legal, administrative and political complications.
The influx of 57,000 migrant children from Central America is leading Obama to crack down on deportations at the moment he was preparing to allow more undocumented people to stay in the country. Although White House officials insist Obama has no intention of backing down on his public pledge to use executive orders to "fix as much of our immigration system as I can," they acknowledge that the crisis has made it much harder.
Inside the West Wing and at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, administration lawyers are working to find consistent legal justifications for speeding up the deportations of Central American children at the border while preparing to ease up on deportations of long-settled immigrants in the country's interior.
The challenge, according to lawyers inside and outside the government, is to somehow avoid being arbitrary in deciding who must go and who can stay.
"It's legally complicated," said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the domestic policy council at the White House and Obama's top immigration adviser. "That was always going to be true. It's just in higher relief now."
At the same time, the members of Obama's team who would play the most influential roles in crafting unilateral policy changes are instead immersed in the urgent debate over what powers the administration has to expedite the removal of unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the United States. The homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, has been spending much of his time on the border — he has traveled there five times since May. He has also been holding private conversations with lawmakers to generate support for the president's $3.7 billion emergency funding request to address the surge of Central Americans. Muñoz has also made the trip.
"Operationally, they have a huge workload at this point for the very same people and agencies that would be involved in any kind of new program" created by executive order, said Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration.
Politically, the surge in crossings has allowed conservatives to seize on the crisis as new evidence that Obama's policies are inviting illegal immigration across a still-porous border. The Central American surge has also incited criticism from Democrats and immigration activists whose anger about the administration's enforcement of immigration laws led one activist last spring to call Obama the nation's "deporter in chief."
Immigration advocates continue to argue that the renewed emphasis on the border only sharpens the incentive for the president to take expansive executive action to protect more unauthorized immigrants.
"Obama's legacy's on the line," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform lobbying group. "Does he really want to go down as the 'deporter in chief,' and the only thing that happened during his second term was beefed-up enforcement and deportations? He's the president. He's got to take action."