WASHINGTON — At a recent White House meeting with immigration activists, President Obama told the group his hands are tied. Even if he wanted to halt the deportations of millions of illegal immigrants, the president told the group, he could not do so without congressional approval.
But Obama has more latitude than he lets on, legal scholars say, and he could soon reveal how he intends to use it. Under increasing pressure to slow the pace of deportations from Hispanic supporters who helped reelect him in 2012, the president has ordered his Homeland Security secretary to make immigration enforcement more humane.
That directive has led to an intense debate about how far the president should go in protecting large groups of illegal immigrants from deportation.
In the latest setback to Obama, House Republican leaders intervened Friday to prevent a vote on immigration legislation, a blow to election-year efforts to overhaul the system.
The move came after Representative Jeff Denham, Republican of California, announced plans to try to force a vote next week, over strong conservative opposition, on his measure creating a path to citizenship for immigrants who live here illegally yet serve in the military. Denham wanted to offer the plan as an amendment to the annual defense bill, but House majority leader Eric Cantor said no amendment would be permitted.
As a possible alternative approach administration officials are considering options to further shift enforcement to focus on criminals and recent border crossers, away from people with clean records.
Officials said the Department of Homeland Security will probably issue new guidelines for law enforcement agents to make it clear that immigrants who are part of a family settled in this country should not be priorities for deportation, especially if their family includes US citizens.
They also are considering changes that would shield some people who have returned to the country illegally after being deported. Those people are now charged with a felony and ordered out of the country.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson offered his first public hints Thursday at the outcome of the review he is conducting at Obama’s behest. He said one of the policies under review is a program that hands over people booked for local crimes to federal authorities.
In an interview on PBS’s “News Hour,’’ Johnson said the so-called Secure Communities program might be revamped to focus on people who actually have been convicted of crimes.
The program allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to run fingerprints of anyone booked for a local or state crime through a federal database for immigration violations. If a match, ICE can ask local police and sheriffs to detain the person.
These and other changes under consideration could affect tens of thousands of people, but they would fall far short of the demands from most immigration activists to address the concerns of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Legal scholars say the White House could also carry out proposals that would remove the fear of deportation and provide work permits for as many as 5 million illegal immigrants.
“Presidents have pretty much complete discretion when it comes to enforcing criminal and other statutory regimes,” said Peter J. Spiro, who teaches immigration law at Temple University. “Obama can’t start handing out green cards. Short of that, from a legal perspective, there are no serious constitutional or other legal constraints that apply.”
Instead, the constraints on Obama are mainly political. Senior White House officials and Democrats on Capitol Hill fear that any move to halt deportations for millions of people would all but end hope of negotiating an immigration deal with Republicans that would be more permanent than any unilateral action. A bill that passed the Senate last year has stalled in the House.
And if the White House were to give up on an immigration overhaul, something officials said had not yet happened, unilateral action by Obama to waive deportations for large groups of people would be politically explosive. Some White House officials believe it could lead Republicans to start impeachment proceedings.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, has warned the White House that even moderate efforts to reduce deportations could scuttle legislative negotiations without satisfying immigration activists, and has said House Republicans should be given through the summer to pass their own legislation.
But with no obvious movement on legislation, pressure is mounting for Obama to do something.
In remarks to law enforcement officials at the White House on Tuesday, the president hinted that he intended to take unilateral action to ease the threat of deportation for some illegal immigrants. He gave little indication of how broadly he wanted to change the rules.
Republicans contend that the president long ago overstepped his constitutional authority in many areas, citing the repeated changes he has made to his health care law, and his promise in his State of the Union address to use executive action to circumvent Congress.