The reason Obama reversed course on immigration

Robert G. de Posada Founder, Latinos for Reform
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During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law within a year of his inauguration. Convinced by that promise, Latinos voted for Obama in droves. Almost four years later, President Obama has not only failed to deliver on that promise, he has managed to undermine even the smallest of reform efforts and has taken credit for deporting more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history. He has also consistently condemned critics who have urged him to use his executive authority to address the immigration issue, arguing that he does not have such authority.

That was, of course, until last week, when President Obama resorted to one of the most desperate acts of political pandering from a sitting president in recent memory.

So what caused the president to reverse course on immigration three and a half years into his term?

On June 7th, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, delivered an address to the National Puerto Rican Coalition in Washington, D.C. In his address, Johnson issued some bold immigration proposals and criticized President Obama for not addressing immigration issues. Johnson specifically criticized the president for deferring deportation but not offering work permits to the people he defers, leaving these individuals in a complicated state of limbo.

A little more than a week after Johnson’s proposals were circulated among Latino leaders, President Obama reversed course. It seems likely that Johnson forced the president’s hand. After all, President Obama couldn’t afford to have his record on immigration challenged from the left. The Obama campaign is well aware that, although the president leads Romney in most polls, a low Latino turnout and a strong challenge from Governor Johnson on immigration could doom his re-election chances in key states where strong Latino voter support will be essential.

It’s certainly not the case that the administration was unaware of its administrative options until recently. The administration has been fully aware of those options for two years. An 11-page memo, drafted by Chief of Policy and Strategy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Denise Vanison in July 2010, outlined the various ways the administration could use existing regulations to provide relief to many of the nation’s 11-18 million illegal immigrants.

During the first two years of his administration, Obama had supermajorities in both the House and the Senate, but he never pressured Congress to address immigration reform. In contrast, President Bush assigned two of his top cabinet secretaries to work with congressional leaders in drafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Obama never assigned the issue to anyone. Even when the “DREAM Act” was brought up for a vote in the Senate, there was no real lobbying effort to get moderate Democrats on board, which would have been enough to pass the bill in the Senate.

Obama’s supporters say that something is better than nothing and that late is better than never. But the fact is that this issue clearly demonstrates that President Obama couldn’t care less about immigration reform, and only took this action because he was afraid of the political consequences of not acting.

If he truly believed that this was “the right thing to do,” why would he have waited three and a half years to do it? Does he realize that he may have deported tens of thousands of young immigrants who would now be covered by this action? Does Obama understand that for three and a half years he played politics with the lives of these youngsters and forced them to live in the shadows?

Sadly, given Obama’s history of taking an all-talk-and-no-action approach to comprehensive immigration reform, his actions will likely end here — proving that he just needed one big press conference to wave in front of Latinos before the November election. Unless he is willing to apply these same standards for deferred action and work permits to the illegal parents of U.S. citizens and willing to grant eligibility for green cards to those who have qualified under Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which he can do unilaterally using the same standards as he did on this move, there is little reason to believe that this is anything more than an effort to use millions of human beings as campaign props.

Now is the time for Latino voters to debate whether President Obama deserves our continued support in November. One has to wonder what he is more committed to: securing his re-election or keeping the promises he made to the Latino community to address one of the most important issues affecting our nation.

Robert G. de Posada is the founder and former president of The Latino Coalition and the president of Latinos for Reform.