By Roger Runningen and Jeff Kearns
September 6, 2014
Citing the “extreme politicization” of the issue, President Barack Obama retreated from his pledge to swiftly revise U.S. immigration policies, prompting a backlash from allies seeking to ease deportations at the Mexican border.
Obama defended his decision in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” set to air tomorrow, and said it wasn’t made to protect Democrats’ control of the Senate. He said a surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into the U.S. this summer affected his political calculations.
“The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem,” Obama said in an excerpt of the interview broadcast today.
Obama said that although many Americans believe there is a crisis on the border, the number of children arriving has slowed, and he needs more time to explain the actions he intends to take later this year.
“I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy,” Obama said.
Obama’s decision angered Latino groups and other immigration advocates that support reducing deportations and other policy changes. The president received 73 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election.
“The president’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director for United We Dream, a Washington-based group that advocates for immigrant youth, said in a statement.
After congressional efforts to revamp U.S. immigration policies ran aground earlier this year, Obama promised to change them on his own, citing dire conditions on the border, particularly for unaccompanied children. He said he would use his executive authority, and as recently as yesterday, he pledged to act “soon.”
Hours later, flying back to the U.S. from a NATO summit, Obama reviewed options provided by two cabinet members and changed his mind, deciding to postpone any action until after midterm elections set for Nov. 4.
In recent weeks, with their control of the Senate in the balance, Democrats had pressed Obama to delay action on immigration, arguing the issue would work against reelection of several incumbents facing strong Republican challengers. They include Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Democrats and their allies hold 55 seats in the 100-member chamber, which means Republicans -- who already control the House of Representatives -- need a net gain of six seats to also control the Senate.
They are poised to gain at least six and perhaps as many as eight seats, according to a Sept. 4 analysis by Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The electoral calculus around immigration is complex, with some Republican groups -- primarily those representing business interests -- saying current policies impede the hiring of needed workers.
Bruce Mehlman, executive director of the Technology CEO Council in Washington, said his members support Obama’s decision to use executive authority to revise immigration policies.
“Inaction is not a strategy, neither for Congress nor the executive branch,” Mehlman, who served as President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary for technology policy at the Department of Commerce, said in an e-mailed statement. “While this remains unresolved, the U.S. continues to educate and then kick out highly-skilled workers who want to contribute to our economy.”
Efforts to change the immigration laws gained momentum earlier this year with the Senate passing a bill -- with the support of some Republicans -- that would have provided extra funds to cope with the surge of children from Central America crossing the border. House leaders scuttled a planned vote after Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, rallied House Republicans against it.
In key electoral districts, particularly in the south, voter sentiment remains hostile to any effort perceived as rewarding border-crossers. Although Obama has provided no details on the options under consideration, Republicans have derided them as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.
“Once again, President Obama is playing political games to protect his liberal friends in November by using sleight of hand to temporarily hide his radical agenda from the American people,” Representative Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, said in a statement. “The president needs to abandon his attempt to issue blanket amnesty by executive order, and instead focus on securing the border.”
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said that if Obama uses his executive authority on immigration, he could motivate more Republican voters to go to the polls.
“It runs risks of looking as though he’s a cowboy doing stuff on his own,” Rothenberg said in an interview yesterday.
Immigration advocates argued that the opposite could also be the case -- that by failing to act, Obama could alienate Latino voters.
“Democrats forget that it was the Latino and immigrant vote that kept them in office,” said Lynn Tramonte, the Cleveland-based deputy director of America’s Voice, a group that favors changing immigration law to make attaining citizenship easier. “It’s seriously taking these voters for granted and having a very short political memory of the fact that the reason they’re even fighting for their majority today is thanks to these voters that they’re now turning their backs on.”
In an attempt to assuage the concerns of such allies, the president personally made phone calls from Air Force One to explain his decision, according to a White House official who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. White House aides were making further calls today, the official said.
Many allies weren’t mollified. United We Dream, the group promoting political action by immigrant youth, put a banner on its website saying “President Barack Obama has further cemented his legacy as the #DeporterInChief.”
“He raised the hopes of people and he dashed them again,” Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, the largest U.S. Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, said in an interview. “We’re deeply disappointed. This is just another on the list of hurry up and wait that our community has experienced on this issue.”
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