WASHINGTON - Latinos and immigration activists are warning of political peril for President Barack Obama and Democrats in the fall election unless the president acts boldly and soon to curb deportations and allow more immigrants to remain legally in the U.S.
Many activists say Obama has been slow to grasp the emotions building within the Latino community as deportations near the 2 million mark for his administration and hopes for immigration legislation fade. With House Republicans unlikely to act on an overhaul, executive action by Obama is increasingly the activists' only hope.
"There is tremendous anger among core constituencies of the president and the Latino and Asian communities in particular," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which champions immigration change. "He has a momentous choice to make."
Activists credit their sit-ins and hunger strikes for Obama directing new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review the administration's deportations policy and suggest ways to make it more humane. Now they're focused on ensuring they get the outcome they want -- an expansion of Obama's two-year-old policy allowing work permits for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children who have been in school or the military.
The program has helped more than 600,000 people. Activists want it expanded to include more immigrants, such as those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years or who since their arrival have had children. Depending on how it's defined, that could help many millions more.
Obama has said he doesn't have the authority to take such a step without Congress. At a White House meeting with religious leaders Tuesday he emphasized he wouldn't act on his own while there still was a window for congressional action, participants said.
Republicans have warned that a unilateral move by Obama would end any possibility for cooperation on immigration legislation. A bill to improve border security and offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million immigrants here illegally remains stalled in the GOP-led House 10 months after passing the Senate.
But many activists say they've all but given up on Republicans and argue that Obama has the responsibility and authority to take expansive steps to legalize large segments of the population. They worry that Johnson's review will produce only small measures aimed at slowing deportations and improving procedures.
"At this point anything short of an affirmative administrative relief program for parents of U.S. citizens and Dreamers is not enough," said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy at United We Dream, which represents immigrants brought here illegally as kids, known by their supporters as Dreamers. "The clock on Obama has run out."
Administration officials haven't tipped their hand on the timing or outcome of Johnson's review, though activists anticipate initial steps fairly soon. Peter Boogaard, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the review will be completed expeditiously and the aim is to see "if there are areas where we can further align our enforcement policies with our goal of sound law enforcement practice."
Despite the complaints from activists, Republicans accuse the Obama administration of inflating its record on deportations by counting people removed as they're attempting to cross the border or shortly thereafter. In the 2013 fiscal year more than 60 percent of the nearly 370,000 deportations were of recent border crossers, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigration activists, meanwhile, say they feel betrayed by Obama, who was elected with strong Latino and Asian support in 2008. They complain his strategy of winning GOP cooperation by increasing enforcement has failed.
Cynthia Diaz, 18, participated in a six-day hunger strike outside the White House last week to protest her mother's detention. She pointed to Obama's promise to prioritize immigration reform.
"That's how he got the Latino vote, and now he just stabbed us in the back," Diaz said, adding she and others would think twice in the future before supporting the president and his party.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said recent polling shows a drop-off in enthusiasm among Latino voters. "Lack of progress on immigration is hurting our chances of getting these voters out to vote," Lake said
Immigrants' rights leaders say executive action by the president would energize Latino and Asian voters, as happened before the 2012 election when Obama deferred deportations for young immigrants. However, it also could mobilize conservative voters.
Frustration has spilled over onto some of Obama's allies in Congress. Protesters from California were arrested last week after swarming the offices of Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra to push toward stronger action.
"We're doing everything that we can," Sanchez later complained. "So when they come and they pressure us it's almost like, 'Guys, we understand where you're coming from, but what we need to do is we need to get a vote out of" House Speaker John Boehner. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said activists were giving "a gift to the Republicans" by targeting Obama instead of the GOP.
Obama expressed a similar complaint at a meeting with immigration rights groups last month, asking officials present to give him 90 more days and meantime keep the focus on the GOP. Participants portrayed a president getting drawn reluctantly into contemplating executive action and focused, at least initially, on smaller steps that he told them would likely not satisfy them.
That meeting, and Obama's announcement of a review by Johnson, came shortly after Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, labeled Obama "deporter in chief."
Now activists are waiting for Obama's next step.
"The pressure for sure is working, and I think the question is how bold are they ready to go," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. "The hard part is this is not a bold administration, and especially on immigration where the focus has been on legislation."