When the nation's most prominent elected Hispanic Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, proposed awarding legal status but not citizenship to those young immigrants, most Democrats cried foul. But Dream Act proponents kept talking to both sides, cracking the door for the GOP to gain ground on an issue that traditionally favored Democrats. In the midst of a pitched reelection battle in which Hispanics could play a decisive role, the White House saw an opening and jumped.
"The game changer here was Marco Rubio,'' said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, one of a number of groups that has been pushing the White House on reform. "He was a legitimate conservative trying to find a solution to the broken immigration system "¦ and the administration realized they had to do something.''
White House sources dismissed the idea that the president acted under pressure from Rubio, saying that the fate of the yet-to-be-filed legislation was unclear. Still, the White House clearly seized the chance to gain the upper hand on the Dream Act while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dithered on whether to back Rubio's proposal and the senator scrambled to file the legislation.
"The big takeaway from this is that it doesn't pay to be a friend of Democrats, and it doesn't pay to be a friend of Republicans,'' Noorani added. "We were able to ping-pong back and forth between Rubio and the White House.''
To be sure, Rubio wasn't the only catalyst of the president's announcement. Dream Act activists, particularly the teenagers themselves who had so much at stake, have relentlessly agitated for the legislation for years. In late May, about 100 immigration-law professors sent a letter to the president, urging him to use his executive powers to stop deportations of young people who would be affected by the Dream Act.
Pressure from both the left and the right seemed to peak last week. Immigration advocates normally allied with Obama held a press conference that declared his avowed efforts to slow the pace of deportations a "failure.'' A slew of evangelical leaders "“ whose pews are increasingly dominated by Hispanic churchgoers -- urged Congress to act on immigration reform. The Washington Post ran two high-profile stories on the issue,comparing the success of gay-rights activists with immigration advocates under the Obama administration and spotlighting an ambitious Virginia high school graduate who feared deportation to a country she barely knows.
"Sen. Rubio created the political space for the president's announcement to happen, but he was not the only factor,'' said Gaby Pacheco of United We Dream. "It was like the stars finally aligned"¦. We finally broke through.''
Meanwhile, Rubio's legislative efforts appear derailed. The senator had held meetings as recently as last week with Republican colleagues and Dream Act proponents. Spokesman Alex Conant said that while the president's order offers undocumented youth a temporary reprieve, it is not a long-term solution.