WASHINGTON -- In the face of an unyielding Congress, President Barack Obama will act on his own to make changes in immigration policy, a White House official said Monday. Obama is expected to refocus immigration enforcement away from the country's interior and onto a Mexican border that has seen a tide of children crossing illegally from Central America, the official said.
This official said that Obama decided to bypass Congress after House speaker John Boehner informed him last week that the House would not vote on an immigration overhaul this year. Obama was expected to address the status of immigration policy later Monday.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans ahead of Obama's remarks.
Obama's decision effectively declares that a broad based change in immigration policy is dead for the year, and perhaps for the remainder of his administration. Changing immigration laws and providing a path to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the country illegally has been one Obama's top priorities as he sought to conclude his presidency with major second-term victory.
Obama's ability to undertake changes on his own is limited.
He is instructing Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Jphnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to present him with executive actions he can take without congressional approval by the end of the summer.
Still, in responding to the influx of unaccompanied children, Obama plans to concentrate immigration resources on the border areas. The move will effectively further reduce the number of deportations in the country's interior by stressing enforcement action on individuals who are either recent unlawful border crossers or who present a national security, public safety, or border security threat.
The decision coincides with a White House request to Congress for new powers to deport newly arrived immigrant children traveling without their parents.
As such, Obama's actions represent a delicate balancing act between responding to what the White House has called a ``humanitarian crisis'' over unaccompanied children and a demand from immigration activists to reduce the administration's record number of deportations.
Deportations have spiked under the Obama administration to a total of around 2 million so far- the same number removed during the full eight years of the Bush administration. At the same time, formal removals from the interior have decreased each year of the Obama administration, while the number of deportations from the border has increased.
The Obama administration also has taken steps already to focus deportations on people with more serious criminal records or those who pose a threat. But this so-called ``prosecutorial discretion,'' while harshly criticized by Republicans, never succeeded in calming concerns in immigrant communities about how deportations are conducted.
Obama on Monday was dropping by a meeting at the White House among immigration overhaul advocates and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Many of those advocates reacted harshly to Obama plan Monday to seek emergency money from Congress that would, among other things, help conduct ``an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.''
Obama, in a letter to congressional leaders, also is asking for increased penalties for persons who smuggle immigrants who are vulnerable, such as children. The request is part of a broader administration response to what the White House has called a ``humanitarian crisis'' on the border.
``This includes fulfilling our legal and moral obligation to make sure we appropriately care for unaccompanied children who are apprehended, while taking aggressive steps to surge resources to our Southwest border to deter both adults and children from this dangerous journey, increase capacity for enforcement and removal proceedings, and quickly return unlawful migrants to their home countries,'' Obama wrote.
The decision to act alone on targeted immigration changes while seeking congressional approval for greater powers to deport recent border crossers, including children, creates an unusual dynamic whereby Obama acts lone on one hand and acts Congress for tougher measures on the other.
The Border Patrol in South Texas has been overwhelmed for several months by an influx of unaccompanied children and parents traveling with young children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Unlike Mexican immigrants arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, those from Central America cannot be as easily returned to their countries. Obama is seeking authority to act more quickly
The Border Patrol has apprehended more than 52,000 child immigrants traveling on their own since October.
Immigrant advocacy groups, already frustrated by Obama's lack of executive action to ease record levels of deportations, immediately pounced on the administration's decision on child border crossers.
``President Obama is asking Congress to change the law to enable the government to inflict expedited removal on unaccompanied children. That is simply unconscionable,'' said Leslie A. Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. ``No matter what you call it, rapid deportations without any meaningful hearing for children who are rightly afraid of the violence and turmoil from which they fled is wrong, and contradicts the fundamental values of this nation.''
Under current law, children arriving at the border from Central America have a right to an immigration hearing before a judge, but under Obama's proposed changes, which must be approved by Congress, that would no longer be automatic and instead the kids would have to make their case to a Border Patrol agent, advocates said.