By Jeff Mason and Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama stepped into the White House Rose Garden in June to announce he would single-handedly reform U.S. immigration policy, he startled advocates by announcing a firm, end-of-summer deadline for executive action.
"If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours," he declared. "I expect ... recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay."
Fast forward nine weeks and both the deadline and the wisdom of setting it are in doubt. Obama's Democrats risk losing control of the U.S. Senate in Nov. 4 elections and, for many struggling incumbents, a policy shift on a hot-button issue in the middle of their campaigns looks unwelcome.
So the White House, having touted its deadline for weeks, has turned noncommittal on the timing of an immigration announcement, creating the impression of disarray on a top domestic policy priority.
"There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer, there is the chance that it could be after the summer," spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.
Some 11 million immigrants, most of them Hispanics, live in the United States illegally. Their status is a controversial topic for voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month found that 70 percent of Americans believed the immigrants threatened the country's beliefs and 63 percent that they burdened the economy.
Republicans, who already control the House of Representatives, have seized on the issue to bash vulnerable Democratic senators. In New Hampshire the issue helped Republican Scott Brown erode the lead of Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
This has left immigration rights advocates and others close to the White House wondering whether the administration thought through the politics at all.
White House officials calculated earlier this summer that immigration would not play a major role in the elections, except perhaps for the sizable Hispanic population in Colorado, where executive action could boost Democratic Senator Mark Udall.
Now other Democratic candidates in tough Senate races are asking the White House to delay.
But immigration rights advocates, wary of what they see as another broken-promise-in-the-making, say waiting carries risks as well. They warn that Hispanics could stay away from the polls in protest if Obama postpones a decision.
"If he doesn't follow through on his promise to take action by the end of the summer, it will make it harder for the people who are knocking on doors in the Latino community to mobilize voters," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the America's Voice advocacy group.
Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at immigrant youth organization United We Dream, said civil disobedience and an aggressive media strategy with Latinos would increase in the event of a delay.
PROS AND CONS
Obama must weigh the drawbacks of losing support in Latino-heavy states such as Colorado against the risk of energizing right-leaning Republican voters in states such as Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, and New Hampshire.
A surge of some 60,000 children crossing the border from Central America to the United States has complicated the debate. Obama pledged to send the migrant children home, an approach that advocacy groups see as overly harsh.
He sought to soothe anger over that policy with his promise to use executive measures to ease deportations of undocumented immigrants who have already lived in the United States a long time. Among the reforms his administration is considering are granting work permits and temporary relief from deportation to as many as five million undocumented immigrants.
Other issues could factor into a delay of that decision.
A House Democratic aide said Obama likely was "tamping down expectations" of an imminent announcement to ease tensions that might stand in the way of Congress passing a spending bill in September to keep the government running.
Republican efforts to undermine Obama's signature healthcare initiative led to a 16-day shutdown of the federal government last year.
All of this raises the question of why Obama set a deadline in the first place.
"I wish I knew," said Angela Kelley, an immigration specialist at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, adding the White House would have to explain its thinking if it decided on a delay. "I don't know what their plan is, but they sure better have one."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Howard Goller)