Obama's Long Immigration Betrayal

To understand why activists are so angry at the president, you have to understand how close they've come—and how long they've waited.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Why does it matter that President Obama has decided to delay action on immigration until after the November elections? What difference does a couple of extra months make?

Obama insists he still plans to unilaterally suspend deportations of many undocumented immigrants once campaign season is done. “I’m going to act because it’s the right thing for the country,” he said on Meet the Press on Sunday. “But it’s going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we’ve done on unaccompanied children, and why it’s necessary.”

Nonetheless, the White House’s announcement of the delay on Saturday was greeted by an outpouring of bitter recriminations from the activists who have devoted their lives to this issue. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” said the United Farm Workers. United We Dream called it "another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community." Activists in Colorado plan to protest Tuesday at the office of Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, saying, “Our coalition is outraged by President Obama’s continued lies and betrayal.” (Bennet is the brother of The Atlantic's editor in chief and co-president, James Bennet.) A front-page Sunday headline in La Opinión, the country’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, declared, “Obama no se atreve”—"Obama doesn’t dare.”

To understand why these advocates are so hurt and angry, you have to understand the meandering road immigration reform has taken over the course of the last decade—a road littered with false starts, broken promises, and a community repeatedly left in the lurch. Latinos feel that they have been jerked around by politicians who alternately pander for their votes and shunt them aside when their priorities become inconvenient—like now. Obama in particular has made a series of pledges on immigration, only to abandon them all. Now, when the president says he still plans to act—just give him a couple of months—reformers don’t know whether to trust him.

"What next?" said Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice, who has worked for immigration reform for decades. "Obama makes another promise? It turns out that other justifications for delay emerge post-election?"

In July 2008, Obama, then a presidential candidate, spoke to the National Council of La Raza at its annual conference in San Diego. “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for a president who won’t walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform just because it becomes politically unpopular,” he said. “That’s the commitment I am making to you, and I will make it a priority in my first year as president.”

Immigration reformers had already experienced a painful near-miss during the George W. Bush administration. Bush had made the issue a priority of his second term, but a combination of backlash from conservatives and Democrats’ political worries—sound familiar?—doomed the legislation. Republicans and Democrats alike were convinced the issue was politically toxic. Rahm Emanuel, then the chairman of the Democrats’ House campaign arm, warned his party away from immigration, telling The Washington Post that it was “the third rail of American politics” and privately urging Democratic candidates to avoid it. (Either despite or because of the caution Emanuel counseled, Democrats gained 21 seats in the House in 2008.)

Spooked by such warnings, one-third of Democrats voted against immigration reform when it came up in the Senate in June 2007, killing the bill. (In 2006, a comprehensive reform bill had passed the Senate but died in the House.) But activists had high hopes for then-Senator Obama, who had voted for immigration reform both times and, as a presidential candidate, ran aggressively on the issue. John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent, had backed away from his longtime support of immigration reform to survive the Republican primary; in the general election, Obama’s campaign hammered him mercilessly in Spanish media, with the result that one of immigration advocates’ historic Republican allies got just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. With Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and Obama promising to make the issue a priority in his first year, activists were sure their time had come.

The first inkling that might not be the case came when Obama named Emanuel his chief of staff. Consumed by other crises, Obama missed his self-imposed first-year deadline. “He kept stringing us along that whole first year,” Sharry said. “It became increasingly clear that his political capital was being used for other things—and was rapidly draining.” Worse, the administration sought to prove it was tough on illegal immigration by ratcheting up deportations. Senate Democrats brought the Dream Act up for a vote after the 2010 elections—in part because Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, had campaigned hard on the issue to mobilize Hispanic voters in Nevada for his reelection—but it failed, and the Tea Party takeover of the House took the issue off the table.

As Obama’s first term came to a close without action, his reelection campaign worried about declining voter enthusiasm among Hispanics. Republicans hadn’t done anything to win them over—the GOP presidential primaries, with their talk of “self-deportation” and electric fences, made sure of that—but they also had little reason to want to vote for Obama, who’d let them down. In June 2012, Obama announced he would unilaterally grant temporary amnesty to some young undocumented immigrants, a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

The action was controversial within Obamaworld, with acolytes of the Emanuel school worried it would rile up the right and turn off independents while striking Democrats as pandering. It was a dramatic stroke, with the potential to temporarily legalize hundreds of thousands of youths. But once Obama signed the order, his first major foray into executive action on immigration, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. No groundswell of previously unseen conservative anger erupted. Progressives and Hispanics hailed the decision, while many moderate voters gave the president points for taking action on an issue Congress was too gridlocked to address. To Latino voters, almost as significant as the policy was the fact that the president had taken a political risk for their sake. And the fact that it had paid off was even better news.

After Obama won reelection, many Republican strategists blamed Mitt Romney’s positioning on immigration for his defeat. A near-unanimous chorus of voices within the party—whose moderate, pro-business establishment had long favored reform—counseled the party to embrace the issue out of political necessity. Everyone from Sean Hannity to Charles Krauthammer to Paul Ryan and Speaker John Boehner touted the possibility. A bipartisan group of senators made quick progress on a compromise bill. The Senate passed comprehensive reform in June 2013 with a solid bipartisan majority of 68 votes.

But as attention moved to the House, Boehner quickly came under pressure from conservatives opposed to any sort of legalization for the undocumented. He set a series of increasingly difficult-to-meet conditions for reform, assuring opponents that the House would not take up the Senate bill, that any bill the House produced would come through the regular committee process, and that it would have to have the support of a majority of Republicans. In January 2014, House Republicans gathered for their annual retreat and announced a set of general immigration-reform principles, including legalization. But inside the closed-door meeting, the document was not well received. Longtime reform antagonists like Representative Steve King of Iowa predictably decried it. More troubling, the less vocal middle contingent that Boehner had hoped would support him was also leery, fearing the political risk.

By the time Boehner announced, in early February, that he could not move forward on immigration because his caucus did not trust the president to enforce the law, immigration advocates increasingly were convinced the legislation was dead—and that their hopes lay instead in unilateral action by the president. They pressured Obama to widen DACA by halting more deportations, perhaps for the vast majority of the undocumented. Obama had long insisted he would not make such a move. When activists met at the White House in March, shortly after La Raza’s president, Janet Murguía, had called Obama the “deporter-in-chief,” tensions were high. The president scolded and lectured the activists for pressuring him instead of the GOP and insisted he would not act because legislation was still possible.

In the aftermath of that meeting, reformers were divided between those who wanted to stand by Obama and those who thought he was wrong to give the House more time. Then, in June, the activists were summoned back to the White House. This time, a different Obama showed up. In a Rose Garden speech, with young undocumented immigrants increasingly flooding the southern border, the president announced that Boehner had told him immigration was dead in the House for the year, leaving him no choice but to take administrative action. Obama pledged to consult Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about what he could legally do to address the issue. “If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” he said. “I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

It was another promise.

The activists believed it. They rejoiced. Here was the Obama who had given them DACA, leaning into a tough election season and taking a political risk on their behalf. Obama advisers like Dan Pfeiffer publicly speculated that Republicans might impeach the president over the issue, which was already the subject of a House lawsuit. “They were going to throw this hand grenade into American politics in late August or early September, watch Republicans go crazy, and change the dynamics of the election. That’s what they were signaling,” Sharry says.

But in recent weeks, as August turned to September, it became clear the White House had lost its nerve. Senate Democrats seeking reelection in red states were convinced the issue could sink them in a close campaign. The border crisis had inflamed the issue and given it new prominence. On Saturday, a White House official told reporters, “Because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections.”

For immigration reformers, this latest moving of the goalposts is more that just another in a series of predictable letdowns. It feels like a moment of truth—the moment they realized they were mistaken to put their trust in Obama and his party. “What is the relationship between the Democratic Party and the fastest-growing group of voters in the country?” Sharry asked. “What’s galling to us is [the implication of] ‘Oh, we’d love to help the brown people, but we might lose some white votes in doing it, so you’re expendable.’” For years, the activists have been told to be patient, that they’re next in line, that something else takes priority and they just have to wait. Many of them can no longer be placated.

The problem, of course, is that the immigration reformers have nowhere to go politically. As badly as Democrats have mistreated them, Republicans have abandoned them completely. There are a few elections this November where depressed Latino turnout might hurt Democrats: the Colorado Senate race, a handful of House districts. But they can’t exactly root for Democrats to lose when the alternative is even worse for the outcomes they seek. That leaves immigration-reform advocates in the same boat as other constituencies whose interests are only attended by a single party—labor unions, for example, or social conservatives; such constituencies inevitably feel taken for granted, used for their votes, while getting few of the policies they seek in return.

Would immigration action by Obama have doomed red-state Democrats? (And, conversely, will his forbearance save them?) The party's political qualms centered on incumbent senators in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, some of whom are already being attacked for their support for immigration reform in states where Obama is unpopular. These and other Democrats feared executive action would exacerbate the Obama drag and energize conservatives in states where there aren't significant Latino populations whose enthusiasm might counteract that effect. Many top Democrats have told me they have private polling to support this conclusion. But some immigration activists believe the politics are less clear-cut and that that analysis belongs to the old "third-rail" way of thinking. They argue that immigration action would provoke Republicans into a confrontation—like impeaching Obama or shutting down the government—that would actually benefit Democrats.

After the election, Obama says he still plans to act, and the White House believes the activists’ anger will quickly fade when that happens. Sharry, for his part, believes the president's latest promise. “But what I hear in the street is, ‘He’s a liar. We elected him, and he’s given us nothing but deportations,’” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of activists—the next generation of leaders of the Latino community—who are never going to forget that Democrats found them inconvenient."