With reform stalled in Congress, activists are urging Obama to act on his own.
Jason Redmond—REUTERS
March 20, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Over the past five years, President Obama has overseen the deportation of nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, mostly to Mexico and Central America. So it was a notable event on March 13 when he invited Hispanic lawmakers into the Oval Office to express his regret about that record–his “deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation,” in the words of a White House statement.

Those words may come to mark a shift in strategy for Obama, who is adjusting to the fact that Republicans in Congress are again unlikely to move forward on immigration reform this year. His original deportation policy was designed, at least in theory, to bring the GOP to the bargaining table and pass a bipartisan rewrite of U.S. immigration laws. It didn’t work.

Instead, Obama has been caught between Republicans who blast him for skirting the law and a liberal base that hammers him for enforcing it too aggressively. A Pew Research survey last December found the threat of deportation was a more important issue for Hispanics than creating a new pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

With Congress frozen, Obama may next try to ease the pain of deportations, particularly among families. He asked his new Homeland Security director, Jeh Johnson, to find “more humane” ways to conduct enforcement within the confines of current law. That announcement came the same week that Johnson clashed with Republicans over a requirement that U.S. immigration authorities detain about 34,000 immigrants at all times. Johnson said he interprets the law to mean that his department is to provide that many beds but not necessarily fill them.

“The President continues to believe that the only permanent solution” to resolve the immigration issue is through legislation, the White House said. But with that solution possibly years off, the President may take further steps on his own.

This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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