Behind the Scenes of Obama's Sudden Immigration Reversal

Pro-reform groups had given up on the president—so his announcement of executive action last week came as a surprise to them.
President Obama discusses immigration reform in the Rose Garden on June 30. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

More than a dozen center-left and hard-left immigration groups sent representatives to what sounded like another uninspiring strategy session in the White House's Roosevelt Room with senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz, head of the Domestic Policy Council.

It was early on the afternoon of June 30, and none of the participants seated around the long rectangular table had any inkling President Obama was pissed. They would soon find out. Moreover, they would discover, to their surprise, that Obama was no longer pissed at them, but with them. This being a meeting of Democratic allies, of course, some of the groups eventually found a way to get Obama pissed off at them all over again—over the issue of unaccompanied minors at the border.

But first, the story of the day was that Obama became unplugged on immigration, took his temper off mute, shook up the underlying base politics of the next two elections, and turned up to boil his long-simmering feud with Republicans over the constitutional limits of executive power.

Jarrett and Munoz called the meeting to order and, according to participants, expectations were low and anxiety high. A quick look around the table revealed the still-smoldering wound Obama felt after being branded "deporter-in-chief." The authoress of the hottest barb ever directed at Obama by the left, Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza, was conspicuously absent. No representative of La Raza was even invited.

It was hard for anyone to imagine new possibilities for the White House with this schism so apparent.

Those who were there—the Service Employees International Union; AFL-CIO; Center for American Progress; Leadership Council on Civil Rights; America's Voice; the National Immigration Law Center; United Farm Workers; Center for Community Change; and others—expected another dreary appeal from Jarrett and Munoz to give House Speaker John Boehner until the August recess to try to move some form of immigration legislation. The immigration groups were fed up with what they had long regarded as Obama's doughy diffidence and had no stomach for another "stay-the-course" soliloquy from Jarrett and Munoz.

What the immigration advocates couldn't help noticing were the two empty chairs at the center of the table on the Oval Office side of the Roosevelt Room, opposite the visitors' entrance.

Jarrett and Munoz sat on either side of the empty chairs and White House counsel Neil Eggleston was to Munoz's right. Jarrett and Munoz were in the opening stanza of their immigration update when Obama and Vice President Joe Biden walked in and sat down. They stayed for more than an hour, Obama doing most of the talking and never referring to notes. Biden chimed in only when, later on, the debate turned to the current border crisis over unaccompanied minors.

Obama told the group that Boehner had informed him on June 24 there would be no votes on immigration before the midterm election but that he believed there was a good chance a comprehensive bill could pass in the next Congress. The president also told the group that Boehner urged him not to press ahead with executive action because that would make legislating more difficult next year.

Obama told the group, according to those present, his response to Boehner was: "Sorry about that. I'm going to keep my promise and move forward with executive action soon."

In the room, there was something of a collective, electric gasp. The assembled immigration-rights groups had been leaning hard on Obama for months to use executive action to sidestep Congress and privately mocked what they regarded as Pollyanna hopes that House Republicans would budge. They had been burned before. Obama reversed himself in late March and slammed the brakes on Homeland Security Department studies of slowing deportations in the name of "humane" treatment, all in the name of giving House Republicans more time on immigration reform.

Ever since, immigration groups on the left despaired over Obama's credulous paralysis. Protests ensued.

Not any longer. Obama told the groups what they had been dying to hear—that he was going to condemn House Republicans for inaction and set the most expansive legal course permissible to beef up border security, slow deportations of noncriminal aliens, and provide legal status to millions of undocumented workers—all by himself.

"He went from hanging back to calling the question and retaking the initiative," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "I kept thinking, 'Where has this guy been?' He's going on offense. He was a different guy. He was unplugged. After months of him and his team being angry with advocates for putting pressure on him to take executive action, it became clear he was no longer going to use the prospect of legislation to deflect attention and pressure from him."

Obama made it clear he would press his executive powers to the limit. He gave quiet credence to recommendations from La Raza and other immigration groups that between 5 million to 6 million adult illegal immigrants could be spared deportation under a similar form of deferred adjudication he ordered for the so-called Dreamers in June 2012.

That executive action essentially lifted the threat of prosecution and deportation for about 670,000 undocumented residents—those older than 15 and younger than 31 who had been brought to America before their 16th birthday.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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