Obama Weighs Possible Immigration Orders — And Their Political Ripples

President Obama is preparing to issue new executive orders on immigration. The White House is considering a wide range of actions, one of which could provide temporary work permits for people who are in the country illegally but still meet certain criteria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama is preparing to issue executive orders on immigration. They could provide temporary work permits to some immigrants who are in the country illegally. Today the president repeated his promise to do what he can on immigration unilaterally since Congress has not acted.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It continues to be my belief that if I can't see Congressional action, that I need to do at least what I can in order to make the system work better.

BLOCK: NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now to discuss what that might mean. And Mara, what about that? What are some of the executive actions that the president is considering?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, the White House is looking at a wide range of actions. He could provide temporary work permits - that is relief from deportation as long as he is in office for people who are here illegally but meet certain criteria. They've paid their taxes. They have no criminal records. He could provide relief to family members of U.S. citizens. He could provide relief to parents of the dreamers. Those are the young people brought here as children that the president has already provided deportation relief to. He could also decide to increase the number of the legal immigration visas to high-tech and agricultural workers. He has the authority to prioritize deportation. Remember, Congress has only appropriated funds to deport about 400,000 people a year. So the White House is already prioritizing who they deport.

BLOCK: And even before announcement of what specifically he will do, there has been pre-reaction coming from all sides, right?

LIASSON: That's right. And the people on both sides say there would be a lot of different reactions. Hispanic advocates say the Hispanic community would be ecstatic if he did this. They would be grateful to the president and the Democrats. Republicans on the other hand say that he would be overreaching his authority. Some Republicans have already talked about impeaching the president if he expands deportation relief. The Republican leadership in Congress does not want impeachment to be their position. They feel that would be a political trap that would further alienate the Republican Party from Hispanic voters. But other Republicans are already talking about trying to defund the president's efforts by attaching measures to a must-pass piece of legislation that funds the government after September 30th. So they are threatening a government shutdown over this.

BLOCK: And Mara, of course, all of this is coming shortly before the midterm elections. What would be the political effects of all this?

LIASSON: There's a lot of debate about that. It's very hard to gain this out politically. The White House thinks not much effect on the midterms either way. They say there's only one battleground state, Colorado, where there's a significant number of Hispanic voters who might be encouraged to turn out for Democrats out of gratitude for the president's executive actions.

Republicans say it would energize their base since the child immigration crisis at the southwestern border. Earlier this summer, immigration has become a much bigger issue for Republicans in battleground races. But Democratic operatives say they don't think the Republican base could be any more energized than they are already. Still, red-state Democrats are very nervous about this with the exception of Mark Udall in Colorado. Almost all the Democratic Senate candidates in battleground states have said they do not want the president to do this.

BLOCK: So then why would the White House act before the midterms? Would there be much difference between issuing executive orders in mid-September or wait till after the midterm's due in mid-November?

LIASSON: Well, that is a good question. And I've been asking it to a lot of people. Here is one political theory about why acting before the election makes sense. If the Democrats lose the Senate, the president will have no political capital left. He'll be at his weakest moment. The Democratic agenda will look kaputt. But if he does it before, he still has some political clout. And if he wants the clearest possible contrast with the Republicans, in effect daring them to overreact and call for impeachment or a government shutdown, he has to do it this month. He has to do it in September before the continuing resolution that funds the government comes due on September 30th. So if you thought we had put that kind of political brinksmanship behind us, you would be wrong.

BLOCK: OK, and Mara briefly, if the midterms aren't the main political calculation for President Obama here, what is?

LIASSON: Well, White House aides say the president is playing a longer game. He's thinking about his legacy. These executive orders have the potential to have a huge impact on people's lives, on the U.S. economy and on the next presidential election because Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

BLOCK: OK, NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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