WASHINGTON - Republicans are warning that any steps President Barack Obama takes to bypass Congress to ease deportations of immigrants illegally in the United States would severely hurt chances of overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
The White House announced late Thursday that Obama was 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.
The move came amid pressure from some of Obama's staunchest allies to act on his own to slow the rate of deportations. Under Obama's leadership, almost 2 million people have been removed from the U.S.
The office of House Speaker John Boehner cautioned that fixes to the immigration system should be carried out by Congress, not by the president on his own.
"There's no doubt we have an immigration system that is failing families and our economy, but until it is reformed through the democratic process, the president is obligated to enforce the laws we have," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Friday. "Failing to do so would damage - perhaps beyond repair - our ability to build the trust necessary to enact real immigration reform."
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, Boehner has acknowledged that stands little chance of happening this year, as Congress becomes consumed with the November elections.
The White House directive to the Department of Homeland Security was announced after an Oval Office meeting Thursday evening with three Latino lawmakers.
The step 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, Republicans have 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, a Democrat, 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.