WASHINGTON -- After delaying executive action on immigration for a second time, the White House imposed a new deadline on Monday, promising to make changes by the end of the year.
President Barack Obama "does intend to act and he'll do it by the end of the year," Cecilia Muñoz, a top White House domestic policy adviser, said Monday on MSNBC's “Jose Diaz Balart.” "But it's also true that we're in a highly politicized environment right now."
For immigration reform advocates, the promise of action by year's end is met with a huge heaping of skepticism, as the administration has pushed back its self-imposed deadlines before. The White House announced on Saturday that it would wait until after the election to take executive action on immigration, including making potential changes to deportation policy that could protect people with long-standing ties to the U.S.
The president insisted during an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press" that he made the delay because it gave more space for future action (including, possibly, congressional legislation) and because the issue had grown complicated with the influx of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border illegally.
"I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country," Obama said. "But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children, and why it's necessary."
But the political calculation seemed more acute. Going forward with executive action before the election would have put vulnerable Senate Democrats in a difficult spot, forced to distance themselves from their own president.
One thing that appears clear, however, is that the administration has the policy in place, and the question now is one of timing. A senior administration official told The Huffington Post that the president is "still working on some implementation details -- so it's not final. But, it's mostly a matter of when [to introduce the executive action]."
On Monday, Muñoz echoed the president's argument that punting on the issue now helped improve the prospects of reform later.
"The president didn't want to throw this into that political maelstrom," she said. "He wants to wait until the political season ends because it will be clearer to the American public, it will be easier to protect the action that he takes, and it will also ensure that we're still on a course to try to get the Congress and act and actually fulfill their responsibility here and pass a bipartisan immigration reform like the Senate did over a year ago."
Immigration reform activists said on Sunday that they felt betrayed by Obama's delay. In the time between now and the election, thousands of undocumented immigrants who might be eligible for reprieve could be deported. Muñoz said she understands why emotions are high over the issue, but that the president wanted to make sure what he did was effective, and that necessitated the delay.
"He wants to make sure that whatever action he takes is well understood and effective, and as lasting as it could possibly be," she said on MSNBC.
UPDATE: 3:15 p.m. -- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated later Monday that the president plans to take executive action before the end of the year, and dismissed critics who said the decision was solely about politics.
"No one in Washington, D.C., has invested more in trying to get [immigration reform] done than President Barack Obama," Earnest said at a White House briefing. "And if that means the president has to take on a little bit more heat here for a few weeks until we announce our decision in order to make it more likely that these solutions will be enduring and sustained and successful, the president is happy to take on that heat in order to get that done."
Earnest said that Republicans will be less likely to "distort" immigration issues after the election.
"For all of the disagreement that there may be around this one issue, there should be no disputing the fact that injecting this issue into the current political environment would be really bad for the issue," he said.