How Obama Got to Yes on Immigration

"Right to Dream" students and supporters block the street outside the federal Metropolitan Detention Center Friday June 15, 2012, in Los Angeles to celebrate the Obama administrations decision to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants. Obama says his plan to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will make the system "more fair, more efficient and more just." (National Journal)

On July 25, 2011, President Obama told a leading Hispanic advocacy group that as much as he wanted to stop deporting young illegal immigrants, his hands were tied.

"I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,'' the president said, as the audience interrupted with shouts of "Yes you can!''

"That's not how our system works,'' Obama said. "That's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written.''

But on Friday -- his hands untied after all -- Obama announced that young people brought to the United States before they turned 16 who have graduated from high school or served in the military could temporarily remain in this country and apply for work permits.

What changed in the 11 months since the president's speech to the National Council of La Raza offers a textbook lesson in grassroots lobbying and the politics of an election year, when Hispanic turnout will be pivotal in several crucial states.

Immigration advocates were frustrated by the administration's unkept promise to reform the immigration system, largely due to Republican opposition. Particularly galling was the failure of Congress to pass the Dream Act, popular legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants who attend college or the military to earn citizenship.

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.

"We were working on the legislation and hoping to build a consensus and without any warning or heads up, the president made his announcement,'' Conant said. "That really changed the politics overnight for the worse by taking the urgency out of passing anything this summer.''

Rubio first started talking about his Dream Act alternative three months ago. Activists were growing restless. "Writing this sort of legislation takes a lot of time,'' Conant explained. "We wanted to let people buy into it. We didn't want to introduce a bill that we didn't have the answers to and didn't have sufficient consensus behind it.''

When the president made his announcement Friday in the Rose Garden, he said he would continue to push Congress to pass the Dream Act as well as broader reform. "Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act,'' he said.

In an interview Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation, Romney suggested that Obama's decision was driven by politics and only amounted to a short-term fix. Romney refused to say whether he would leave the president's policy in place, giving Hispanic voters who already favor Obama by a wide margin another reason to keep their distance.

Next week, both Obama and Romney are slated to address the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando. Both men will face a potentially tough crowd: Obama because of his administration's aggressive deportation policy, and Romney because of his promise to veto the Dream Act.  While the president's new policy ensures the Orlando audience will have a reason to stand and applaud him, the larger goals of the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform remain elusive.