Immigrant-rights groups reacted furiously Saturday after the White House made clear President Obama will not take unilateral action on immigration before November’s elections, nodding at the political realities of the issue as he punted on the key policy questions.
With a number of key Senate races in GOP-leaning states, Democrats had feared that action now would anger voters and cost them control of the upper chamber, and had privately begged the White House to hold off on any move to halt deportations.
But immigration activists said it’s the latest in a series of moves by Mr. Obama to shove their interests aside for the sake of politics.
“We advocates didn’t make the reform promise; we just made the mistake of believing it,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who had been among the most vocal in demanding the president take action. “When the going gets tough, they abandon Latinos and their issues as fast as you can say pinata.”
Earlier this week White House press secretary Josh Earnest had denied that politics were playing a role in Mr. Obama’s thinking,
“That’s not what the president is focused on. What the president is focused on is trying to solve problems,” he assured reporters.
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Mr. Obama’s decision to put off action suggests the White House still believes it can win enough seats in November’s elections to preserve a majority in the Senate. Republicans would need to net six seats to win control.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed the president taking unilateral action, still called Mr. Obama’s decision “cynical.”
“The president isn’t saying he’ll follow the law — he’s just saying he’ll go around the law once it’s too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections. This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy — it’s Washington politics at its worst,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Mr. Obama’s hand was forced in part by the surge of illegal immigrant children and families that poured across the border in the late spring and summer, lured by smugglers who said lax immigrant policies in the U.S. would give them a chance to gain a foothold here.
The administration admitted that was true, and vowed to stiffen enforcement, though its options were limited and it has done little other than to juggle staffing.
Still, the surge changed the politics of the issue, with voters telling pollsters that they viewed border security as more important than legalizing illegal immigrants. That was a reversal from last year, when polls showed legalization took precedence over border security.
For illegal immigrants, while the news of a delay is disheartening, it’s hardly a sign of tougher times. Indeed, a Washington Times analysis earlier this year estimated that the chances of an illegal immigrant being deported who isn’t a recent border-crosser and doesn’t have a criminal record is less than 1 percent a year.
But immigrant-rights advocates have long questioned Mr. Obama’s commitment to them, and this latest move will only deepen those concerns, which stretch back to his days in the Illinois Senate and then as a U.S. senator, when he voted to build the border fence.
When he ran for president in 2008 he promised Hispanic audience he would work to pass an immigration bill in his first year in the White House, but instead worked on health care, the economic stimulus, global warming and other priorities.
The one major exception came in 2012, just months before he was seeking re-election, when he announced he would grant tentative legal status to illegal immigrant young adults who had come to the U.S. as children, who had completed a high school education and had kept a clean criminal record.
That move, which more than a half-million illegal immigrants have taken advantage of, earned him applause from Hispanics, and helped propel him to an overwhelming percentage of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election.
Some legal analysts had questioned whether Mr. Obama had the legal authority to halt deportations, and a federal judge in Texas had even concluded it was illegal — though the also judge ruled he didn’t have jurisdiction over the case.
Activists had been calling on Mr. Obama to expand that tentative legal status policy to include illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children, and of the young adults who gained status under the 2012 policy.