By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If immigration reform sputters in the deeply divided U.S. Congress, supporters are planning to push President Barack Obama to act on his own to help 11 million illegal residents, lawmakers and immigration advocates said.
Immigration law experts, some senators and House Democratic aides speculated that if Congress cannot agree on a wide-ranging immigration bill this year, Obama could use his executive authority to stop deporting parents of children living in the United States illegally.
Many of those children have won temporary reprieves on deportation and broadening the protection to their parents would be a way of keeping immigrant families together.
Navigating around Congress comes with plenty of drawbacks, though, since anything Obama could do would not be as lasting as enacting a law. Furthermore, he could not use his own powers to make sweeping changes, such as creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented.
Any such measures are certain to provoke a reaction from Republicans. But immigrant groups would argue that some action from the White House is better than putting up with existing conditions.
Obama also could sidestep Republican opposition to legislation by helping a broader spectrum of illegal residents who have been in the United States for prolonged periods, say 10 years or more, for temporary legal status if they have clean records.
"You could make a persuasive policy argument that those are the people who have most fully sunk roots into communities, most convincingly demonstrating they're contributing in the labor market," said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. "Many are paying U.S. taxes and raising families in their adopted country."
With Congress in a five-week recess and many Republicans balking at "amnesty" for those living in the United States illegally, chances are worsening for passing a comprehensive immigration bill this year, even with the Senate's bipartisan backing in June for such a measure.
"There's a huge degree of effort and support going into immigration reform and if it fails (in Congress), all of that effort and support will turn right back on the administration to do something for constituents that have been hurting and are important to the president," Meissner said.
Senior Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who voted for the Senate-passed bill, told Reuters, "There are a lot of people speculating" about the demands for Obama to act unilaterally if legislation fails.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who helped write the Senate bill, concurred, saying, "I have always suspected that's a real possibility."
But Hatch and Rubio both warned Obama against taking matters into his own hands, even if legislation fails.
Bill Hing, a University of San Francisco professor who specializes in immigration law, said in a telephone interview: "I think it's going to begin ... with just huge pressure on the administration to cut back on its Secure Communities" program.
Controversial among city and county governments, this federal program gathers fingerprints and other information from local law enforcement that can be used to identify undocumented people.
Hing said the program has been aggressively used by the administration and the result has been the deportation of many for minor violations such as traffic infractions.
After spending most of his first term as president refusing to use his executive powers to ease deportations of illegal immigrants, Obama flexed his presidential muscles in mid-2012. With his campaign for re-election gearing up, he had his Department of Homeland Security temporarily halt deportations of undocumented children who were brought to the United States by their parents, often at a very young age.
Seeing the effectiveness of that executive action and the absence of successful legal challenges, Obama could be emboldened to expand it with the stroke of his pen.
Presidential action may be the least desirable outcome for supporters of immigration reform, however, because it is a temporary remedy that can be reversed by future presidents and because there are only limited steps that can be taken.
"The importance of legislation is that it's a permanent fix," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. He also said Obama could not order a "pathway to citizenship" for the 11 million but could ease their short-term deportation fears.
Legal status leading to citizenship is a key demand of immigration groups as they seek passage of legislation.
Executive branch action also would not create more high-tech visas or new categories of temporary work permits. The Senate legislation would accomplish those things, much to the pleasure of U.S. business.
Further complicating matters, Obama would have to make a political calculation before acting, assessing the potential impact of any administration directives on 2014 congressional elections.
For now, backers of immigration legislation do not want to acknowledge this executive branch avenue since it detracts from their message that Congress will manage to pass a bill this year.
"I don't want to even entertain that thought," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who helped write the Senate-passed bill, said of potential Obama action.
Senator Charles Schumer, the leading Democratic author of the bill said, "I'm not even going to get into that," and insisted he is "more optimistic every day" of legislation passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Even the White House tried to squelch speculation. "The only way to fix this problem is for Congress to pass comprehensive reform. There are no other options," a spokesman said.
Any steps by Obama likely would prompt an outcry from Republicans who would again accuse him of trampling the Constitution by deciding which laws he was going to enforce and which ones he was going to ignore. That was their reaction in mid-2012.
"I think the White House has to be careful," Hatch said. "They've been doing an awful lot of unilateral legal action without authority and if that keeps up, the president is going to find himself in real difficulty."
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Bill Trott)