Why Obama’s Immigration Policy Will Haunt Democrats

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 29 2014 11:20 AM

Borderline Insanity

President Obama’s immigration policy has been devastating for Latinos. Now it’s hurting him.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks into the Rose Garden at the White House.
The deporter-in-chief.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

To his strongest supporters, President Obama is a uniquely skilled politician: a master strategist who traps his opponents in a clever game of rope-a-dope. It’s how he beat the Clintons, passed Obamacare, and cruised to re-election in a bad economy.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

I sympathize with Obama and support his domestic policy goals, but this always struck me as overstated. Obama is a talented politician, but in his five years as president, he’s made major political mistakes. The 2011 debt ceiling crisis was a huge debacle that threatened the global economy, and it owes itself—in part—to Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt limit, bucking precedent and sparking a spiral of Republican intransigence. He ended the standoff with a series of deals, but not without damage to his standing and the country.

If there’s another failure in the cards for Obama, it’s immigration. Since 2009 the president has pressed for comprehensive immigration reform at the same time that he’s increased border security. By 2012, in fact, the administration was spending unprecedented sums on border security and immigration enforcement, with results to match: That year, the administration removed 409,849 unauthorized immigrants from the United States, a record number.

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Implicit in all of this was a political calculation. If Democrats cracked down on illegal immigrants, then Republicans might be more willing to come to the table for a broader solution. This paid dividends last year, when the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill that overhauled the nation’s immigration laws with tougher security and a path to legalization and citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

But this victory crashed on the shores of the House of Representatives, where Tea Party Republicans opposed any new overhaul, and could bend House Speaker John Boehner to their will. Their argument for inaction was easy: They couldn’t trust the president. To many House Republicans, Obama is a lawless tyrant who refuses to obey the rule of law, hence the post-hoc changes to Affordable Care Act.

“If the president can selectively enforce Obamacare, what’s to say he cannot selectively enforce border security?” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last year. And in his frantic drive away from the Senate compromise—which angered conservatives—Florida Sen. Marco Rubio echoed the concern. “You have a government, and a White House, that has consistently decided to ignore the law, or how to apply it,” he said on Fox News Sunday “Look at the health care law. The law is on the books. They decide which parts of it to apply and which parts not to apply. They issue their own waivers without any congressional oversight.”

That was in the fall, and it’s where we’ve been ever since. In February, Boehner repeated the concern. “[O]ne of the biggest obstacles we face is trust,” he said during a press conference. “The American people and including many of my members don’t trust that the reform we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be.”

Even with all of this, however, President Obama still thinks he can get immigration reform from a recalcitrant GOP. Which is why he’s directed the secretary of homeland security to delay a deportation enforcement review, that—according to the New York Times—“officials feared would anger House Republicans and doom any lingering hopes for an immigration overhaul in Congress this year.”

But like the push to negotiate the debt ceiling, this is an insane calculation. There’s no reason to think Republicans have changed their thinking on immigration reform, comprehensive or otherwise. “[F]or all practical purposes,” notes Greg Sargent for the Washington Post, “the position of many Republicans right now is that the only acceptable policy response to the immigration crisis is maximum deportations from the interior.” House Republicans even refuse to vote on something as inoffensive as the ENLIST Act, which gives legal status to young unauthorized immigrants if they serve in the military.

Delaying the deportation review won’t bring Republicans to the table. In the meantime, the White House will continue its mass deportation of unauthorized immigrants. So far, in fact, the administration has removed about 2 million people from the United States, most of whom were Latino. And if the current pace continues, Obama will have deported more people by the end of 2014 than George W. Bush did in his entire tenure. Or, put another way, the National Council of La Raza wasn’t exaggerating when, in March, it called President Obama “the deporter-in-chief.”

It’s hard to overstate the human cost of Obama’s deportation policies. “In 2012 alone,” writes Dara Lind for Vox, “an estimated 150,000 US citizen children lost a parent to deportation.” Tens of thousands have been deported for petty crimes or no crimes at all, and tens of thousands more have been plunged into our Kafkaesque system of border detention. More than 1 million Latinos have been separated from family members through deportation, and many more live with that fear.

If Democrats hold a demographic advantage in national elections, it’s because of their high standing with Latino voters. Indeed, huge Latino support is key to Democratic chances in states as diverse as Florida, New Mexico, and Georgia, where shades of blue have crept into the statewide picture. For years, they’ve been patient on immigration reform, supporting Obama through the deportations, which aren’t a distant concern—63 percent of registered Latino voters know someone who is undocumented. And according to new research from Latino Decisions, their patience is wearing thin:

Although Latinos tend to identify with the Democratic Party, many young potential Latino voters actually have poor information about the Obama administration’s immigration policies. When informed of these policies—as both Latino civil rights groups and mainstream Spanish-language news outlets have increasingly done since our experiment was conducted—their views of the Democratic Party become markedly more negative.

These Latinos are at the beginning of their political formation, and will build partisan attachments that last the rest of their lives. A generation of Latinos that associates Democrats with deportations is a generation that—if it doesn’t support Republicans—may withdraw from the political process altogether. And in the short term, ties to the deported and the undocumented play a role in presidential approval—“Latinos who know someone that is undocumented are 43.4 percent less likely to have a favorable impression of the President.”

President Obama made a gamble. If he cracked down on unauthorized immigration, he could pass a comprehensive reform bill that repaired the damage and built a better system for the country. Absent a Democratic House—or a new Democratic president with momentum on her side—this isn’t on the table.

For now, the best bet is for Obama to back away from aggressive enforcement, if not for his political standing, than for ordinary Latinos and other Americans affected by deportation. As with the debt ceiling, there’s no reason to compound this mistake.

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