The heady sense of victory immigrant rights activists had last year after President Obama announced his deportation amnesty has faded in recent weeks as the advocates sense they’ve lost ground among the very Democratic leaders they were counting on to deliver at the national and state levels.
The latest blow came over the weekend in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has scrapped plans for a state-level Dream Act granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants as part of the budget — spawning a hunger strike from young illegal immigrants who expected him to come through.
Nationally, meanwhile, Mr. Obama is taking fire after his immigration service earlier this month deported a Mennonite pastor with American citizen children who had been living without authorization for years, but who came to agents’ attention because of a drunken driving conviction from the 1990s.
Activists said that deportation broke the rules Mr. Obama himself laid out in November, when he said he wanted to kick out “felons, not families.”
“It goes to who really are our champions. That’s disillusioning a lot of the electorate,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. “Democrats would like to make people believe that Republicans have a Latino problem. Well, Democrats are definitely facing a Latino problem that many of them aren’t even aware of.”
The relationship between the president and immigrant rights advocates has always been rocky, dating back to his vote as a senator to build the border fence, and then extending to his failure to make good on his campaign promise to tackle immigration reform his first year in office.
Mr. Obama had appeared to smooth things over in November when he bypassed Congress and announced executive actions to grant a temporary deportation amnesty and work permits to millions of immigrants in the country illegally. At the same time Mr. Obama also announced new enforcement priorities that were supposed to lower the chances of deportation for millions of other illegal immigrants — though they would not be eligible for the work permits included in his broader amnesty.
Buoyed by that success, and by polls that suggest the public is increasingly accepting of legalizing illegal immigrants, activists turned to states, pressing for legislation to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, known as the Dream Act.
New York was a particular target, with a Democratic governor in Mr. Cuomo vowing to use the state budget to make it happen this year.
In the span of a few weeks, however, Mr. Obama’s immigration policy was halted by a federal judge, his agents deported Pastor Max Villatoro — the Mennonite cleric who was sent to his native Honduras on March 20 — and Mr. Cuomo failed to secure passage of the Dream Act in New York.
“I would definitely agree that there’s some deep disillusionment and disappointment,” said Manuel Castro, immigration campaign coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition.
Mr. Castro said they will have to wait for more details about the New York negotiations to come out before knowing where the agreement broke down — though early press reports said the Assembly speaker, a Democrat, squelched a deal that would have coupled the Dream Act to an education tax credit.
But the loss of the Dream Act goes to the heart of the immigration movement, where so-called Dreamers, illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, are viewed as the most sympathetic figures in the debate.
Denise Vivar, one of the students on a hunger strike to protest the governor’s retreat, said her last meal was March 24. Since then she’s been subsisting on water while working at her cashier’s job and attending classes — where she’s in the middle of midterm exams.
She said they were excited when Mr. Cuomo put the Dream Act in his budget, and realized he ran into political opposition from Republicans in the legislature. But she said activists would have liked to see him push harder to win.
“It’s always, ‘Yeah, we care about Dreamers, and we want them to be fully part of U.S. society,’ but when it comes to the real deal, they always end up abandoning us,” she said.
Even as New York was stumbling over the Dream Act, several other states are facing debates over whether to repeal their own state-level laws.
The legislature in Texas, which was the first state to adopt in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants in a bill signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, is poised for a committee-level debate on repeal next week, and Kansas’s legislature has also toyed with a repeal.
At the national level, activists are eyeing Mr. Obama’s deportation statistics and questioning how he’ll carry out removals even as the court cases continue.
Mr. Vargas called the deportation of Mr. Villatoro “a promise broken,” and said advocates will be watching the rhetoric in the emerging 2016 campaign for clues to see which party is making a claim for votes within his community.