WASHINGTON — Leaving his timing uncertain, President Barack Obama laid out ambitious objectives Friday for immigration steps he intends to take on his own and said he had already received some recommendations from the Homeland Security and Justice departments for executive action he could implement without Congress.
Facing competing pressures from immigration advocacy groups and from Democrats nervous about November's midterm election, Obama made no commitment about whether he would act in the coming weeks as he had earlier pledged.
"My expectation is that fairly soon, I'll be considering what the next steps are," he said during a news conference in Wales at the end of a two-day NATO summit.
Still, Obama spelled out his goals with a degree of specificity that he had previously not detailed.
He said that without congressional action to overhaul the immigration system, he would take steps to increase border security, to upgrade the processing of border crossers, to encourage legal immigration and to give immigrants who have been illegally in the United States for some time a path to become legal residents, pay taxes, pay a fine and learn English.
"I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of...action by Congress, I'm going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office, because it's the right thing to do for the country," he said.
On June 30, Obama said he had directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to give him recommendations for executive action by the end of summer and pledged to "adopt those recommendations without further delay."
Legal experts and lawmakers have debated the extent of Obama's authority, and Holder's and Johnson's recommendations remain closely held. It's also unclear how far Obama could go without congressional approval in meeting the goals he delineated Friday.
In 2012, Obama authorized the Homeland Security Department to consider applications to defer deportations for immigrants who had entered the country illegally as children and to give them work permits. Since then, the program has deferred the deportation of more than 580,000 immigrants.
Immigrant advocates say Obama has the authority to allow similar deferrals to potentially millions of other immigrants, beginning with the parents of those young immigrants whose deportations have already been deferred.
The Democratic-led Senate passed a broad overhaul of immigration last year that included boosted border security, more visas for legal immigrants and a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the country. But the Republican-controlled House has balked at acting on any broad measure and House Speaker John Boehner informed Obama earlier this year that the House would not act this year.
More recently, the White House has been under pressure from some Democrats to delay any action until after the elections out of fear that taking steps now would energize Republican opposition against vulnerable Senate Democrats. Some have voiced misgivings about Obama acting on his own at all.
"We need to fix our nation's broken immigration system, which is why I supported the Senate's bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill," said Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat seeking re-election In Minnesota. "I have concerns about executive action. This is a job for Congress, and it's time for the House to act."
Advocacy groups have countered by stepping up their calls for swift action. In a letter to Obama on Friday, leaders of major pro-immigrant groups called on him to stick to his self-imposed deadline and "not to allow shortsighted political interests to get in the way of doing what is right for our communities and our country.
"Being a leader requires making difficult and courageous decisions," the letter, whose signers included the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens, said. "It is your time to lead, Mr. President."