WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Saturday that the surge of immigrant children entering the U.S. illegally changed the politics surrounding the issue of immigration and led him to put off a pledge to use executive action that could have shielded millions of people from deportation.
Immigration reform advocates criticized Obama after White House officials said that the president would not act at summer's end as he promised in June but would take up the matter after the midterm elections in November. In an interview taped for NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama rejected the charge that the delay was meant to protect Democratic candidates worried that his actions would hurt their prospects in tough Senate races.
By Obama's own calculations, politics did play a role in his decision. In his remarks to NBC, which were to be aired on Sunday, he said a partisan fight in July over how to address an influx of unaccompanied minors at the border had created the impression that there was an immigration crisis and thus a volatile climate for taking the measures he had promised to take.
"The truth of the matter is — is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem," he said. "I want to spend some time, even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we're doing this, why it's the right thing for the American people, why it's the right thing for the American economy."
Reflecting the passion behind the threat of deportations, immigration advocacy groups that have criticized Republicans for not passing an immigration overhaul instantly turned their anger on Obama.
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, said the decision was "another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community."
"Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we've received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone," she said.
"We are bitterly disappointed in the president and we are bitterly disappointed in the Senate Democrats," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "We advocates didn't make the reform promise; we just made the mistake of believing it. The president and Senate Democrats have chosen politics over people, the status quo over solving real problems."
Two White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name, said Obama made the decision to delay taking action as he returned Friday to Washington from a NATO summit in Wales. He called a few allies from Air Force One to inform them of his decision, the officials said, and made more calls from the White House on Saturday.
Obama went to the White House Rose Garden on June 30 to angrily declare that House Speaker John Boehner had informed him that the Republican-controlled House would not be taking up any measures to overhaul the immigration system. As a result, he 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. Obama also pledged to "adopt those recommendations without further delay."
By delaying, the White House weighed the benefits of acting now and running the risk of immigration getting blamed for any Democratic losses, especially in the Senate where Democratic control hangs in the balance. Among those considered most at risk were Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Obama advisers were not convinced that any presidential action would affect the elections. But the officials said the discussions around timing grew more pronounced within the past few weeks.
Ultimately, the advisers drew a lesson from 1994 when Democratic losses were blamed on votes for gun-control legislation, undermining any interest in passing future gun measures.
White House officials said aides realized that if Obama's immigration action was deemed responsible for Democratic losses this year, it could hurt any attempt to pass a broad overhaul later on.
Republican leaders in Congress criticized the president, calling his decision a cynical ploy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama's move amounted to "Washington politics at its worst."
"What's so cynical about today's immigration announcement is that the president isn't saying he'll follow the law, he's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections," McConnell said. "This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy."
Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement on Saturday, said the decision to delay, rather than abandon, the idea of executive action on immigration "smacks of raw politics."
"Any unilateral action will only further strain the bonds of trust between the White House and the people they are supposed to serve," Boehner said.
Partisan fighting erupted recently over how to address the increased flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the U.S. border with Mexico. The officials said the White House had not envisioned such a battle when Obama made his pledge in June.
Since then, the number of minors caught alone illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States has been declining. That decrease and Congress' absence from Washington during August has taken attention away from the border for now.
Still, the dispute over how to deal with the surge of Central American border crossers threatened to spill over into the larger debate over immigration and the fate of 11 million immigrants in the United States who either entered illegally or overstayed their visas and have been in the U.S. for some time.
The Democratic-led Senate last year passed a broad overhaul of immigration that boosted border security, increased visas for legal immigrants and a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the country. But the Republican-controlled House balked at acting on any broad measure.
During a news conference Friday in Wales, Obama reiterated his determination to act on his own even as he avoided making a commitment on timing. He also spelled out ambitious objectives for his executive actions.
Obama said that without legislation from Congress, he would take steps to increase border security, upgrade the processing of border crossers and encourage legal immigration. He also said he would offer immigrants who have been illegally in the United States for some time a way to become legal residents, pay taxes, pay a fine and learn English.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Darlene Superville contributed to this report. Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn