Obama Faces Hard Decisions On Syria, Immigration

Immigration remains one of the most challenging issues for President Obama. Political correspondent Mara Liasson discusses the political cost of the choices before him with Linda Wertheimer.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News I'm Linda Wertheimer. President Obama is spending the weekend fund-raising before he takes off on a trip to Europe next week to meet with NATO partners. The president has many decisions to make, among them, whether to expand a military strike against the Islamic State in Syria and, here at home, what kind of action to take on immigration. All his decisions have a political component, of course. And Labor Day weekend is traditionally the start of the election campaign season.

We'll have more on the NATO Summit in a moment. But first, to talk about one of the president's chief concerns at home this fall, national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, do you think the president is going to move ahead on immigration without Congress?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes, the president is getting ready to act on his own. The question is what he's going to do and exactly when he's going to do it. He has said that since Congress failed to act on comprehensive immigration reform, he has asked his secretaries of Homeland Security and the attorney general for recommendations by the end of summer. That would be September 21. And he said he will act on them without delay.

This could mean a number of different things. He could give temporary work permits or deportation relief to people who meet certain criteria. He could speed up the legal migration progress, make it easier and faster to get green cards for workers in high-tech and agricultural industries. This is going to be highly controversial. There's a big debate about the timing and about what the political fallout might be.

WERTHEIMER: Well, obviously, if he jumps ahead of his democratic colleagues who were running for office in the Congress, I mean, aren't they going to be plenty mad?

LIASSON: Yes, they will, some of them. Some Democrats, particularly Democrats who are running in these red state Senate races, they don't want him to act before the election. They are worried that unilateral action on immigration, even though it would just be temporary - it would only last until the end of the Obama administration - would further energize Republicans. It would create a backlash. Republicans see any executive actions on deportation relief as amnesty and overreach.

But other Democrats think, maybe in some states like Colorado, which is one of these top Senate races, it could energize Hispanic voters to turn out. Hispanics have a very low turnout rate in midterms. There is still the possibility he could roll out these executive actions piecemeal. Some of them before the election, some of the controversial ones after the election. But there are White House officials who think if he is going to draw a big, clear contrast with the Republicans, who - some of them, are talking about impeachment if he does this or at least shutting down the government, he might as well do this before he loses the Senate and has no political capital.

WERTHEIMER: Now on a practical level, if the president does offer temporary deportation relief to certain groups of illegal immigrants, why would any of them come out of the shadows if the relief would only last as long as Obama is the president?

LIASSON: You are right. The next president can reverse President Obama's executive orders. And it would be a risk for people to come out of the shadows and qualify for President Obama's temporary deportation relief and then be subject to deportation as soon as he left office. However, immigration advocates say it would be very hard politically for the next president, if he were a Republican, to turn around and deport people who came out of the shadows. And those executive orders that the president might issue could create a lot of very politically powerful facts on the ground. Don't forget, Hispanics are the fastest growing portion of the electorate. They don't play a huge role in midterms, but they will play a very big role in the next presidential election.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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