Too soft or too strict? Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg
Too soft or too strict? Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama is under attack from Republicans for selectively enforcing immigration laws. He is under attack from immigration rights activists for enforcing laws too aggressively. Let's see if we can guess which group the White House will be more responsive to.

In his first term, Obama's administration deported a record 1.5 million undocumented immigrants. Republicans applauded this return to law and order following what House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte termed the "lax and loosey-goosey" administration of George W. Bush.

OK, I made that quote up. Here's what Republicans actually said in their 2012 party platform: "The current Administration’s approach to immigration has undermined the rule of law at every turn."

Obama surely concluded a while back that he was not going to get any credit for being tough on deportation. The question now is whether he wants credit for going soft.

A 2011 memo from John Morton, then the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said deportations should be prioritized on the basis of "national security, public safety and border security." Obama subsequently carved out exceptions for some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and for families of U.S. military personnel. Bloomberg News reported today that the pace of deportations has slackened, from 409,900 individuals in fiscal year 2012 to 343,020 in 2013.

Earlier this month, 29 House Democrats wrote to Obama asking him to stop deportations altogether for undocumented immigrants who would qualify for legalization under immigration reform bills, including the Senate legislation passed in June. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is cheering. “Our view of the law is, if somebody is here without sufficient documentation, that is not reason for deportation,” Pelosi said. “If someone has broken the law or committed a felony or something, that is a different story.”

Obama's more selective approach has left Goodlatte with no choice but to break the domestic equivalent of Godwin's law. "President Obama is the first president since Richard Nixon," he said, "to ignore a duly enacted law simply because he disagrees with it."

Meantime, on Nov. 25 Obama was heckled by a college student demanding that he use his executive powers to halt deportations. "If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so," Obama replied. "But we're also a nation of laws."

The gray area on executive powers here seems pretty vast. "Historically, Congress has been an interested but inconsistent player in immigration enforcement," said Daniel Tichenor, the author of "Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America" and a political scientist at the University of Oregon. "Both in the past and today, the executive typically has possessed broad authority and discretion over enforcing the nation's immigration laws."

Frustrated by inactivity on Capitol Hill, more immigration activists are likely to turn their fire on Obama. If Obama snubs them, it will be proof that he truly does feel constrained by the constitution. Because if the choice is between Republicans on one side and immigrants on the other, the politics is pretty clear.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)