A decade ago, then-state Sen. Miguel del Valle was trying to round up support for a bill to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in Illinois. He was a few votes shy, and had at least one good target in mind: fellow state Sen. Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama was a rising star and someone Mr. del Valle considered a friend and a solid vote for progressives on social issues, though he hadn’t been very involved with immigration. Mr. Obama, however, was reluctant to get on board the driver’s license bill. He came around, but warned Mr. del Valle it was politically painful.
In the end, Mr. del Valle fell a single vote shy — and so he froze his bill, meaning the vote was never recorded.
A few years later, Mr. Obama was able to remain silent during a key 2008 Democratic primary debate as his chief opponent, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was pilloried for backing New York’s plan to issue licenses to illegal immigrants.
“He was thinking politically,” Mr. del Valle told The Washington Times in an interview last year.
For Mr. Obama, immigration has usually been a political issue first, according to those like Mr. del Valle who have worked with him on the issue dating back to his days in Illinois as a state senator and later a U.S. senator. Some describe him as cautious, while others question how deep his commitment runs to the immigrants whose fate now rests with him.
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This week, Mr. Obama will take his biggest immigration step yet: claiming unilateral powers to grant temporary amnesty to what advocates hope will be millions of illegal immigrants.
“Everybody agrees that our immigration system is broken. Unfortunately, Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long,” the president said in a Facebook post announcing two speeches, one Thursday at the White House and a second in Las Vegas on Friday, where he will detail exactly what he plans.
Advocates see reluctance
The moves are being eagerly anticipated by advocates who have for years insisted to a reluctant White House that the president had broad powers to halt deportations. Now they are waiting to see how broadly Mr. Obama acts.
“I believe he’s gotten a wake-up call, and hopefully he’s going to do something very generous and broad so that he’ll do the greatest good for the most people,” said Emma Lozano, pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, whose history with Mr. Obama dates back years.
Previously, she has compared Mr. Obama to an abusive husband, saying he kept dangling hope in front of immigrant rights activists only to then pull it away, yet he kept asking for Hispanics’ political support.
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“Barack Obama’s consistent in the terms that he treats the community like his battered wife: He keeps making promises and then doesn’t follow through on them,” she said last month as she began a petition drive to recruit Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez to run an independent immigrant rights campaign for president in 2016.
On Wednesday, though, she said she’s optimistic he’s gotten religion.
“I’m applauding him right now. I’m very critical, and I don’t want to hear again [that] I’m going to be this abused wife, I’m going to be slapped down. But I’m applauding him. He’s standing his ground,” she said.
Many of the activists from Mr. Obama’s Chicago days say the president didn’t appear to have Hispanic friends in his childhood, from his time at Harvard or in representing the South Side of Chicago in the state Senate. His district didn’t have a lot of Hispanic voters either.
Whether that affected him or not, they said they found him difficult to work with on some issues. For example, Ms. Lozano said, as a U.S. senator he wouldn’t help activists with “private bills,” which are a way of asking Congress to approve legal protections for immigrants on a case-by-case basis.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama recalls the meeting where he had a staffer tell the groups he wouldn’t sponsor those bills because it was unfair to help a few people out of the millions facing deportation. Some of the activists reacted angrily to the Hispanic staffer, including one who accused him of forgetting his roots. Mr. Obama was angered by the exchange.
“I wanted to call the group and explain that American citizenship is a privilege and not a right; that without meaningful borders and respect for the law, the very things that brought them to America, the opportunities and protections afforded those who live in this country, would surely erode,” he wrote.
A few weeks later, however, he attended a meeting at St. Pius Church organized by Mr. Gutierrez and other activists, where he encountered a young girl whose family was pursuing citizenship. Mr. Obama wrote in his book that he was reminded “that America has nothing to fear from these newcomers … who may not have had the right legal documents or connections or unique skills to offer but who carried with them a hope for a better life.”
Anger over fence
Mr. Obama got an early education about Hispanics’ growing political clout soon after a key 2006 vote, when he joined with most of his Senate colleagues in voting for the Secure Fence Act, which called for building 700 miles of double-tier fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Just a few months before, on May 1, hundreds of thousands of immigrants had marched in Chicago as part of national protests against strict immigration enforcement laws. The Senate responded by passing a legalization bill in a bipartisan vote that saw Mr. Obama join with most fellow Democrats and a striking list of Republicans, including the Republican leaders in the chamber at the time, Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But that bill stalled and, eager to boost border security ahead of the 2006 elections, Congress rushed through the fence bill. While it passed overwhelmingly in Congress, immigrant rights activists saw it as a declaration of war.
The activists called a meeting with the then-U.S. senator, who was already exploring a presidential bid. Things did not go well. One woman, Carmen Velasquez, even refused to shake Mr. Obama’s hand.
“I didn’t come there to shake his hand. I went back to that meeting to try to have him explain why he did that,” she told The Times in 2013. “I didn’t hear that. There was no apology. There was nothing that said to me ‘maybe I was wrong.’”
Mr. Obama promised a better dialogue, particularly heading into 2007, when Democrats would take control of the House and Senate and have a chance to pursue their own policies.
2007 immigration bill
One of those opportunities was on a broad immigration bill. With the White House in the hands of President George W. Bush — whose time as a Texas governor had made him a vehement proponent of legalization — and Democrats controlling Congress, the chances for a deal seemed high.
Negotiations were controlled by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who for years had led his party’s efforts on immigration, and Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.
Mr. Obama was on the periphery but not instrumental to writing the bill. Mr. Kyl recalled Mr. Obama showing up at just a single meeting out of the dozens that the bipartisan group held to write the legislation.
The then-senator’s chief concern, Mr. Kyl said, was E-Verify, the system set up so businesses can electronically check to see whether job applicants are work-authorized. Mr. Obama wanted to make sure applicants who wanted to challenge an adverse finding could keep working while their appeals were pending.
Still, Mr. Obama’s participation in one meeting did leave him ahead of about half of his colleagues, who didn’t show up for any of the meetings.
On the floor, Mr. Obama again established a mixed record — including one well-noticed vote for an amendment that limited the proposed guest-worker program. That amendment, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, was a key priority of labor unions, but it violated the agreement Mr. Kyl and Mr. Kennedy had struck on guest workers.
The Dorgan amendment was approved, 49-48, and it helped doom the 2007 immigration bill, which died in a bipartisan filibuster a day later.
Mr. Obama won the 2008 election while garnering 67 percent of Hispanics’ support. He made smart use of the burgeoning Spanish-language press, granting interviews and making news — including telling one influential broadcaster, Jorge Ramos, that he would pursue an immigration bill in his first year in office.
That didn’t happen. Mr. Obama has blamed his need to right the U.S. economy and his desire to pursue health care as priorities that got in the way. He also blamed Republicans for walking away from the issue.
“And what I confess I did not expect — and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here — is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform, [including Sen. John McCain] my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings, suddenly would walk away,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Ramos in a 2012 interview explaining his lack of action.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about Mr. Obama’s history with the issue, but his defenders say he gets it on a fundamental level, and has for years.
Speaking last year at the Brookings Institution, Cecilia Munoz, his domestic policy adviser and a former top official at the National Council of La Raza who was instrumental in writing the 2007 Senate immigration bill, said that dates back to his days in Illinois.
“As a U.S. senator, and before that as a state senator from Illinois, the president developed a view that immigration reform is not just the right thing to do, it’s an economic imperative that impacts all sorts of communities and families in very tangible ways,” she said.
Playing both sides
In office, Mr. Obama’s record has been characterized by divergent messages on immigration.
He has assured Republicans he’s deporting a record number of immigrants, but has told immigration activists that they are serious criminals, recent border crossers or repeat immigration violators.
In a 2010 meeting, activists recalled, Mr. Obama laid out his theory: He told them if he could show Republicans he was serious about enforcement, they would meet him halfway by agreeing to a pathway to citizenship for at least some illegal immigrants. The activists said the theory wasn’t working — families were being torn apart as Republicans were still not meeting him halfway.
Some activists, including Mr. Gutierrez, got arrested in front of the White House.
The activists said Mr. Obama had executive authority to halt deportations, particularly for the so-called dreamers, the young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents, who are considered the most sympathetic cases in the debate.
The president and his top Homeland Security officials said he didn’t have that power, though he said few of them were being deported anyway.
Then, just ahead of the 2012 election, Mr. Obama reversed himself and announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Illegal immigrant adults who’d completed a high school education, had been in the U.S. before they turned 16 and who were still young adults could get a proactive stay of deportation and a work permit.
Some Democrats had feared a political backlash, but instead the program proved to be a winner. Mr. Obama’s GOP opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, stumbled over his response, and the president cruised to re-election, winning 71 percent of Hispanic votes.
Now on the defensive, Republicans began 2013 with promises to work on a broad immigration bill. Mr. Obama promised to stay out of the discussions, instead taking a role as an outside cheerleader urging the process on.
A bill cleared the Senate in 2013 on a strong bipartisan vote, 68-32, thanks in part to a compromise that would have surged border security.
But House Democrats rejected the stiffer border security, and rank-and-file House Republicans rejected the broad legalization of most illegal immigrants, and the bill never came up for a vote in the House.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama was under increasing pressure again from activists to expand his deferred action policy to include parents of “dreamers” and of U.S. citizens’ children. Again, the president denied he had the authority to expand his deferred action policy and even questioned its wisdom, saying in a 2010 speech that it would actually encourage more illegal immigration.
But earlier this year he reversed himself and set an end-of-summer deadline to take action, saying he had an obligation to step in. But as summer ended, the White House said he was postponing his decision until after the election in order to prevent a voter backlash that could damage Democrats in the midterm elections.
The backlash happened anyway, and his party suffered devastating defeats in the Senate in particular, with four incumbents who voted for the Senate’s legalization bill going down in defeat and a fifth likely to lose her runoff election next month.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of immigrants were deported who immigrant rights activists say should never have been deported had the president acted by his summer deadline, as initially promised.
It’s unclear how much of that criticism Mr. Obama’s move will erase. Anything short of halting almost all deportations will still leave some advocates furious — particularly if the White House, as some reports have suggested, will establish a requirement that the illegal immigrants who get amnesty have to have been in the country for a long period of time.
“What we will not support is more political football or being treated as a wedge issue, nor will we accept arbitrary lines that divide us,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who said “100 percent of immigrants deserve equality.”