The tone of the immigration debate has softened considerably over the past year and even weeks, but even the bipartisan Senate push for an immigration fix seeks vaguely defined border-security benchmarks that must be met before changes take effect. Last week, Senator Rand Paul proposed an annual vote by Congress to "certify" the border as secure before reforms proceed. Immigration-rights advocates are concerned that deportations and detentions could be used as the standard by which security is judged.
"The administration has put itself in a little bit of a bind," Barón says. "They've been trying to say, 'We're really tough on enforcement and we're deporting a lot of people.' Now anytime they seem to be backing off that they're going to be called out. The way they should be talking about it is, 'We realize we don't need to have these people detained. It's not humane, we're working on comprehensive immigration reform. We're not dropping those cases.'"
Whether Obama could legally expand the DACA program to include a much broader swath of the country's esimated 11 million undocumented immigrants depends on whom you ask. John Yoo, the George W. Bush Administration deputy assistant attorney general whose legal memoranda justified "enhanced interrogation" techniques, blasted DACA in a law review article in September, describing it as a "breach of duty" under the Constitution.
On the other hand, Kenneth R. Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power, argues history is littered with executive orders popular with the president's party and condemned by the opposition.
"Democrats and liberals say, 'This is wonderful, it's about time,' while conservatives and Republicans are outraged, saying 'He's nullifying a law, he can't do that!'" Mayer says. "The answer is they're both right. In practice, the president can do this. But Congress could try to stop him, and the way they do that is raising the political cost to a degree the president doesn't find acceptable."
With immigration-reform legislation inching toward the president's desk, it's unlikely he'll waste political capital by halting deportations or even reducing the immigrant detainee population, despite the budgetary considerations. The prospect of doing anything that might alienate Republicans, especially with a compromise so close, alarms activists like Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an advocacy group comprised largely of small-business owners.
"We have a Congress for a reason," Jacoby says. "To fix anything permanently you need to have legislation, and in order for that to happen it has to be bipartisan. My worst nightmare is the president thinking, 'I don't need bipartisan legislation. Why share credit with Republicans? I can just go on and do this myself.' I think that's a disastrous political strategy."