WASHINGTON - Latinos and immigration activists are warning of political peril for President Obama and Democrats in the fall election unless the president acts boldly and soon to curb deportations and allow more immigrants to remain legally in the United States.
Many activists say Obama has been slow to grasp the emotions building within the Latino community as deportations near the two million mark for his administration and hopes for immigration legislation fade. With House Republicans unlikely to act on an overhaul, executive action by Obama is increasingly the activists' only hope.
"There is tremendous anger among core constituencies of the president and the Latino and Asian communities in particular," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which champions immigration change. "He has a momentous choice to make."
Activists credit their sit-ins and hunger strikes for Obama directing new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review the administration's deportations policy and suggest ways to make it more humane. Now they're focused on ensuring they get the outcome they want - an expansion of Obama's two-year-old policy allowing work permits for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children who have been in school or the military.
The program has helped more than 600,000 people. Activists want it expanded to include more immigrants, such as those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years or who since their arrival have had children.
Obama has said he doesn't have the authority to take such a step without Congress. At a meeting with religious leaders Tuesday he emphasized he wouldn't act on his own while there still was a window for congressional action, participants said.
Republicans have warned that a unilateral move by Obama would end any possibility for cooperation on immigration legislation. A bill to improve border security and offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million immigrants here illegally remains stalled in the GOP-led House 10 months after passing the Senate.
Many activists say they have all but given up on Republicans and argue that Obama has the authority to take expansive steps. They worry Johnson's review will produce only small measures aimed at slowing deportations and improving procedures.
"At this point anything short of an affirmative administrative relief program for parents of U.S. citizens and Dreamers is not enough," said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy at United We Dream, which represents immigrants brought here illegally as kids, known by their supporters as Dreamers. "The clock on Obama has run out."