President Obama Backtracked on Immigration Promises for Political Reasons

Postponing action on immigration reform may have been politically smart, but it comes with a serious human cost.

Immigrant communities felt a collective punch in the gut this month when President Obama decided to further delay a commonsense solution that would have brought fairness, order, and justice to millions of aspiring Americans living in the United States without authorization. The decision to wait until after the November elections is about nothing more than short-term political gains. The Obama administration and Senate Democrats worried that any immigration announcements would bring a tidal wave of anti-immigrant voters to the midterm polls and push vulnerable Democrats out of office.

But this delay is also about people. Hopes have been dashed. Voter apathy has been sown. Families will be ripped apart. While some politicians may think delaying administrative reforms for another 12-16 weeks is only an inconvenience, that callous attitude ignores the fact that in the interim at least 70,000 immigrants will be deported from the U.S., if current patterns continue. Many of those deported are the very community members Obama hopes to protect after an executive announcement. These people are small-business owners, grandparents, mothers, workers, and community leaders. They're diverse. And they, along with their families and friends, have been told for too long that immigration relief is around the corner.

Take Yestel, for example. He is a civil-rights defender in New Orleans who bravely spoke out against racial profiling tactics currently being piloted in the South to identify, detain, and deport migrants as they carry out their daily activities. As a result, Yestel was nearly deported after being detained when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided a Latino-owned auto-body shop when he went to pick up his car. To the ICE agents that detained him and other Latinos, it didn't matter that Yestel had been working in and contributing to his New Orleans community for eight years or that he had a loving Louisiana family that depended on him. Yestel remains in deportation proceedings, though his mechanic, Wilmer, was not so lucky.

Wilmer was detained and deported just last month in an apparent retaliatory decision after his wife spoke out about the auto-body shop raid at a press conference. Wilmer has been ripped away from his family and his local community. He arrived in the U.S. in 2005 to help in the post-Hurricane Katrine reconstruction efforts. Yestel, who remains in the U.S., has joined 10 other individuals in a fight to obtain temporary relief from deportation. The group wants to expand the opportunity for people like them to apply for a program that allows undocumented migrants to remain in the U.S., work lawfully, and pay taxes.

Obama's legal authority to allow people like Yestel to come forward and apply to remain in the country to which they have long contributed is clear, and organizations like my own have been highlighting it for months. In early September, 136 law professors also put forth their unequivocal analysis, removing any semblance of a legal hurdle Obama may feel he needs to overcome to do what's right for the country.

Administrative action to remove the threat of deportation from millions of people would have economic benefits as well. A study released by the Center for American Progress this year noted that any executive action on immigration that also granted undocumented immigrants the right to legally work in the U.S. would produce potential payroll tax revenue amounting to anywhere from $21 billion to nearly $45 billion over the next five years. That's $21 billion to $45 billion that could be used to fund federal services and jobs, reduce pressure to raise other taxes, or shore up financially imperiled or costly federal programs.

So why would a president delay solving national problems using his own well-documented authority? Why would he put off action that would improve our economy and keep our communities whole? Politics, say the pundits. But even this argument falls short when one stops to look at the big picture. Latinos and Asian Americans—the groups that comprise most of the nation's undocumented immigrant population and report in large numbers personal relationships with undocumented immigrants—are a crucial part of the any voting bloc combination that can lead to victory in purple states like Colorado.

The president's announcement will deflate these communities, both this November and, potentially, in 2016. Reasonable citizens might conclude that their participation in the political process will not yield the policies that they want or feel that their undocumented family members and friends need. Anti-immigrant voters, on the other hand, will continue to use the specter of administrative action to rally their base, regardless of whether action is actually taken.

Here is the truth: At a time when House GOP members' recent votes have cemented their brand as the extremist anti-immigrant party, the Democrats who pressured the president to delay his announcement threw away the opportunity to show that theirs is a pro-immigrant party. Instead, Democrats have sent a loud message that they are the party that has made a habit of taking immigrants and the citizen voters who stand with them for granted.

Obama backtracked on his promise to act on immigration by the end of the summer. Worse, he continues to solidify his record as the president who has deported more immigrants than any other administration, often barring them for years from ever re-entering the U.S. If the president fails to act later this year, his legacy will not be one of hope and change, but that of a leader who exacerbated a dysfunctional immigration system and implemented draconian detention and deportation policies.

The president's legacy has not yet been cemented, however. If he acts boldly to allow all those with long term ties to the country to apply to stay and work in the U.S., President Obama will be remembered not for his failure to act, but for recognizing the social and economic benefits of this seemingly controversial decision.

Our communities have marched, voted, and fought for full inclusion in the workplace and in their neighborhoods. It's time for the president to show immigrants the same courage they have demonstrated for years.

Marielena Hincapié is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.