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.

Obama has now ordered the Homeland Security and Justice departments to find executive authorities that could enlarge that non-prosecutorial umbrella by a factor of 10. Senior officials also tell me Obama wants to see what he can do with executive power to provide temporary legal status to undocumented adults. And he will shift Immigration Control and Enforcement resources from the interior to the border to reduce deportations of those already here and to beef up defenses along the border.

"Things were getting ragged with some of the immigration groups," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "Many of us had long drawn the conclusion the House Republicans were not going to budge. After Obama spoke, the vibe was, 'Wow. This is a very clear, very serious pivot.' "

There ensued a brief debate about the underlying politics of executive action in the shadow of the midterm elections—whether it would motivate Latinos and progressives in larger numbers than Tea Party-inspired GOP voters; would it cut for or against Senate Democrats in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, and Georgia; and how it would play in 2016.

"He didn't seem to give a shit," Sharry said. "It was clear he was going on offense and going to run to the question."

Within the White House, the sense is that Obama's coming moves on immigration will not help anywhere but Colorado and possibly Virginia. Advisers hope, perhaps unrealistically, there will be a red-state push. The 2016 calculus is completely different. Inside and outside the White House, the consensus is that GOP inaction on immigration reform will define the campaign and any attempts to draft legislation in the next Congress—with or without a GOP majority in the Senate and the House—will complicate political prospects for Republicans seeking the presidential nomination and for Senate Republicans up for reelection in blue states, people like Florida (Marco Rubio), Illinois (Mark Kirk), Iowa (Chuck Grassley), Ohio (Rob Portman), Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), and Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey).

But that's not the end of the immigration story, politically or otherwise. The fury over Obama's looming executive actions will come. And it will be loud. But the current crisis over unaccompanied minors at the southern border is also a prism for Obama's willingness to use the law to deport illegals—even children in desperate circumstances.

That issue also arose in the Roosevelt Room, and it drove a deep wedge between Obama and the immigration groups reunited moments before around the executive-action strategy.

According to those present, Obama was focused entirely on future executive actions when Gustavo Torres of CASA de Maryland asked about the unaccompanied minors and Obama's desire to expand his power to deport the children, returning them, in most cases, to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Obama said his goal was to provide humanitarian assistance, speed up the processing of the cases under the law, and ask Congress for up to $3 billion for housing and temporary courts to process and deport those without legal standing.

To many in the Roosevelt Room, this sounded technocratic and procedural and borderline inhumane. Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the National Immigration Law Center, urged Obama to look at the human tragedy of children fleeing violence in their home countries and consider whether swift deportations would deny them due process.

Obama, according to those present, argued forcefully that the U.S. had to signal its intent to enforce the law through deportations and that failure to do so could lead more children to die en route to the southern border or take scandalous risks by traveling with smugglers or on the roofs of trains. He could not, in good conscience, give any remotely encouraging signal to children or their parents to risk their lives, as many had already done in coming to America's doorstep.

Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, piped up and warned Obama that the driving energy to reach the United States could not be stopped. "Mr. President, when my family and I came to the country, I was 5 years old, and when we were caught crossing the border and were sent back, we didn't give up," Salas said. "We kept trying until we made it."

Obama, according to those present, would have none of it. Kids all over the world have it tough, he said. Even children in America who live in dangerous neighborhoods would like to live somewhere else, but he can't solve everyone's problems. He told the groups he had to enforce the law—even if that meant deporting hard cases with minors involved. Sometimes, there is an inherent injustice in where you are born, and no president can solve that, Obama said. But presidents must send the message that you can't just show up on the border, plead for asylum or refugee status, and hope to get it.

"Then anyone can come in, and it means that, effectively, we don't have any kind of system," Obama said. "We are a nation with borders that must be enforced."

The discussion ended amicably if unsatisfactorily. Obama thanked the advocates for their passion and said he understood their concerns about due process for unaccompanied minors but remained resolute about deportations.

"The issue is real, and the solutions are unattainable in the short term," said Fitz of American Progress. "Everyone understood that. The families of these children are making a dire decision, and the president didn't want that decision infused with the false hope that there was a golden ticket waiting for them on the border. "

In this regard, Obama has aligned himself with congressional Republicans, even though they acknowledge it only rhetorically. Obama will soon ask Congress for more power to deport the unaccompanied minors, rankling Democrats like Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez was displeased when briefed last week on Obama's enforcement plans. House Republicans may prove receptive to the money and the deportation authority when it comes time to write a continuing resolution.

Either way, Obama's now struck his own path on the larger issue of comprehensive immigration reform and unaccompanied minors on the border, pleasing no one completely in the process.

Obama's Independence Day came June 30, four days early. On this issue, it was, and will remain, a day to remember.

Presented by

Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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