Deportation relief for millions of people — that's the scale of action immigrant rights activists anticipate from President Obama by the end of the year.
Fusion spoke with some of the county's most influential immigrant and Latino organizations and found a resounding message: the president will need to provide a robust program to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants through deportation relief and work permits to satisfy their expectations.
"He needs to create a program where the largest number of people who are contributing to their community and have no criminal record are able to come out of the shadows and register, even if this program is temporary," said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, a deputy vice president at the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the country.
The bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013 should be the benchmark, according to Martínez. The legislation, now stalled in the House, would have provided a pathway to legal status for an estimated 8 million people and “getting as close to that as possible should be the goal,” she said.
President Obama has vowed to take immigration policy into his own hands sometime after the midterm elections and before the end of the year. The administration remains undecided about which aspects of the system will be reformed, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week. "The fact of the matter is there are still decisions to be made," he told reporters. "When we’re ready to announce that policy we will announce it."
The administration originally said it would act by the end of the summer, but then delayed, ostensibly because it was dealing with an immigration crisis on the southern border. In addition, some Democratic members of Congress in close election races feared such action could hurt their campaigns.
Republicans could present another obstacle. Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, recently said immigration action by Obama would be "unconstitutional" and "illegal," and promised the GOP would work to thwart such a plan if it wins the Senate this November.
Despite those challenges, the president will likely deliver this time around, according to Marshall Fitz, the director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank and one of the organizations considered closest to the White House on the issue. "People can challenge or question the credibility because a promise was broken," he said. "The reality is they are totally committed to doing this."
The centerpiece of any immigration action from the White House is widely expected to be a deportation relief program similar to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), enacted by Obama in 2012. Under that initiative, certain young undocumented immigrants could apply for deportation relief and work permits.
"I think they're looking at a whole menu of options, but the top item on the menu is some expansion of deferred action," Fitz said.
This time around, advocates want a program with broader reach, something akin to the Affordable Care Act in its impact — a legacy-defining move that will cement Obama's reputation as a champion of immigrant rights, not the "deporter-in-chief" he's been labeled in the past.
Along with large-scale deportation relief, groups believe the president will act to further prioritize immigration enforcement, so that resources are spent "targeting serious criminals rather than stay-at-home moms," according to Frank Sharry, a longtime Washington advocate and the executive director of America's Voice. The administration began formally prioritizing enforcement in 2011, but immigrants continue to be deported for low-level crimes.
The president could also streamline the legal immigration system, including the pathways that allow foreign tech workers to stay in the U.S. The tech industry has been a major lobbying force on immigration and they've asked for policy changes that would allow foreign college graduates to remain in the country longer, and a program to "recapture" unused green cards.
But whether the White House will carry out these policy reforms remains unknown. "It is as clear as mud," Sharry said. "I believe it when they say no final decisions have been made."
Some groups are growing restless. The youth-led organization United We Dream, for instance, recently crashed a Democratic campaign event in North Carolina where Hillary Clinton was speaking, putting Clinton on the spot and sending the message that Democrats are not safe from criticism.
United We Dream wants to see the president expand his deferred action program to include a wider range of people, including the parents of those who qualify for the existing DACA program.
"If Democrats want to get the support of the Latino community this is going to be a critical piece," said Cristina Jimenez, the group's managing director. "The actions taken this year will be remembered in 2016."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.