By Alex Altman
October 29, 2014

Immigration activists are ratcheting up the pressure on Barack Obama, warning the President that a failure to live up to expectations for executive action on immigration would jeopardize his party’s standing with the Hispanic community.

“We won’t take any more excuses,” says Cristina Jimenez of the immigration-reform group United We Dream. “What we expect from the President is for him to use his legal authority to enact a program that will protect as many people from our community as possible.”

Obama pledged over the summer to take executive action this fall on immigration in the absence of legislation to fix a broken system. That promise crumbled under political pressures, as vulnerable Democrats in red states cajoled the White House into postponing the move until after Nov. 4. Now, as the midterms draw near, some reformers fear they’re about to be brushed off once more.

As the White House begins to weigh the scope of executive action, the early whispers among immigration reformers are that Obama may fall short of the lofty targets the movement has set for him. The President is considering an order that would grant temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to a sizable number of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a step he could take unilaterally by expanding the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The overarching question is how many undocumented immigrants he will protect. The White House signaled over the summer that it could extend administrative relief for up to several million undocumented immigrants and their families. By delaying the decision for political reasons, Obama has nudged expectations even higher.

At a “bare minimum,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the immigration orders should include “an extension of work authorization to everyone who would qualify under the Senate bill and an end to the Secure Communities program and policies that criminalize immigrants. The President has the legal authority, the moral obligation, and the political capital required to take these important steps.” The Senate bill, which passed the upper chamber in June 2013 with 68 votes, would provide relief to some 8 million undocumented immigrants.

“This is an action that frankly we believe the President should have taken months ago,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “The president has broad legal authority to do this. It’s really about his political will.”

But there is growing concern that Obama may lack the will to make a bold unilateral move, especially if his party suffers sweeping losses in elections that were, in many ways, a referendum on his policies. Two anonymous sources cited by Buzzfeed, which reported Tuesday that final recommendations were being sent to Obama, pegged the number in the low seven figures. And even some of Obama’s allies worry that a President with a mixed record on immigration and an instinct for the middle ground will disappoint the Hispanic community once again.

“We’re definitely concerned,” says a Democratic source involved with the immigration-reform push, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House. “The history of this presidency is one of trying to accommodate the opposition.”

Timing is a mystery as well. The White House continues to say that Obama will act this year. But some in the immigration-reform movement worry the deadline could push once again. On Nov. 9, Obama leaves for a weeklong trip to Asia. The Thanksgiving lull arrives soon after. Then Congress needs to hammer out a deal to extend government funding, which expires in mid-December, amid a crammed lame-duck calendar. Executive action on immigration could throw a wrench in those budget talks.

Immigration reformers urged Obama to withstand those pressures. “Some might worry the backlash against a bold program will be too great,” said Hincapié. But that backlash will exist whether the President extends relief to one person, 1 million or many more. “We’re holding the president to his word,” she added. “There are no more excuses.”

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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