White House fears immigration blame
By: Reid J. Epstein
December 6, 2013 05:09 PM EST
President Barack Obama wasn’t happy when a heckler interrupted his immigration speech in San Francisco last month.
That was just the beginning.
Since Ju Hong’s protest of the administration’s deportation policies, the graduate student and periodic immigration protestor has gone on a media blitz, appearing on outlets from the BBC to Bay Area local news to Korean radio along with writing a Huffington Post column. More worrisome for the White House, the incident prompted an extensive discussion of Obama’s aggressive deportation policies on Spanish-language television and tapped tapped a long-simmering nerve among immigration activists that Obama has failed to stem the tide.
For the White House, the risk is that its efforts to channel public anger at House Republicans for inaction on immigration will be taken over by activists unhappy over the fact Obama has sent away more people than during every other presidency combined. Latino voters helped push Obama to victory in key battleground states in 2012, but if Latino enthusiasm for Democrats wanes, the party risks alienating or splintering the group.
“Because of one specific action the narrative of this immigration issue has changed,” Hong said in an interview. “We’ve been talking about Congress and blaming Congress, but with the action that I took, I strongly believe that the message has shifted to President Obama.”
The White House reacted immediately, with Obama last Friday visiting the Fast for Families tent near the Capitol where activists are praying for congressional action on immigration legislation. But at the San Francisco speech and a fundraiser afterwards, Obama said he can’t act by executive order alone.
“The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” Obama said at the time. “What I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done.”
The argument from activists seeking to slow the pace of deportations, Obama should stop deporting so-called DREAMers — people who would be allowed to stay in the country under the comprehensive immigration reform bill the Senate passed earlier this year. Obama has already halted the deportation of family members of members of the U.S. military.
A White House official said the only way to advance any immigration agenda is through Congress — not by pressuring the president.
“Earlier this year, the House voted to reverse the action taken by the administration to provide deferred action to DREAMers,” the official said. “It is unrealistic to think that the president can skirt the law and take even more aggressive measures unilaterally.”
And most worst-case scenarios don’t foretell Latino voters migrating to a Republican Party whose last presidential candidate advocated self-deportation. But Obama may need to do more than just call for House Speaker John Boehner to act on immigration.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has been arrested at the White House protesting the Obama administration’s deportation policies, said Hong is not alone in his sentiment. Gutierrez on Thursday was one of 29 Democratic House members who wrote to Obama asking him to “suspend any further deportations and expand the successful deferred action program.”
“That young man is a reflection of a very broadly held sentiment in the immigrant community,” Gutierrez said. “People should not diminish what he said because of how he said it. Take at face value that his sentiment is one that is widely held.”
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, agreed.
“What you’ll see in 2014 is as the prospect of legislation becomes significantly reduced, the pressure on Obama is going to be significantly increased,” Sharry said. “I’m sure the White House would love to keep the focus on Boehner and the Republicans as long as possible, but they don’t speak for our movement.”
And Jim Wallis, the CEO of the Catholic social justice agency Sojourners, said Obama will share the blame if House Republicans don’t move on immigration reform.
“Immigration reform if it passed, everyone wins and if we don’t, everyone loses,” Wallis said. “That’s really what this comes down to.”
The White House is very touchy about any criticism from its allies for Obama’s deportation policies, which have sent away more people during his tenure than all other presidents combined.
“There’s no time when advocates they know criticize the president that they don’t respond,” said one immigration reform official who deals regularly with the White House. “They respond every time. Every time.”
The official added: “I don’t think people take it seriously. It’s like, ‘Oh, keep the focus on the Republicans and not on the president.’ Well, guess what? As a candidate he said he’s going to stop this mindless separation of families. If they really want to get into it, it’s not going to go well for them.”
Obama is trying to make sure that House Republicans take the blame for not passing an immigration bill. It’s up to them, he said during the San Francisco speech, “to decide if we can move forward as a country on this bill. If they don’t want to see it happen, they’ve got to explain why.”
There are plenty of White House allies who believe executive action would scuttle the chance of any deal with the Republican House. Conservatives in particular oppose this path, but it also has resistance among those in the liberal base closest to the White House. There is optimism in these circles that Boehner’s hire of former John McCain aide Rebecca Tallent means House GOP leadership is willing to deal.
“You could certainly predict a strong Republican blowback to broad administrative relief happening right now. Just look at the way Republicans have dealt with the Affordable Care Act,” said Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress. “It will shift the Congress’s focus on immigration dramatically to administrative relief and whether it’s legal or not and that will raise many more questions that would take the attention away from legislation.”
Galen Carey, the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Obama doesn’t have a choice but to follow the law.
“Certainly we know that every day people are being deported,” Carey said. “The president is implementing the law when he deports people, and it illustrates that the law needs to be fixed and there’s a lot of human suffering the longer this is delayed.”
Yet Sharry said the idea isn’t to relieve any of the pressure on Congress, but rather to add to it by adding the White House as a target in its calls for reform.
“For us, it really is a both and approach,” Sharry said. “Congress, get off your ass and Obama stop deporting people who would qualify for the bills. … Why would you run away from a fight in which you’re the great emancipator for Latinos and Republicans are threatening to impeach you over it.”
And for the DREAMers, the young undocumented immigrants that Obama allowed to stay in the country through his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order last summer, patience has run thin.
“The longer that you see Congress taking time and blocking and throwing excuses on and not moving with a vote on immigration reform, the more that that creates pressure for the president,” said Cristina Jiménez, the managing director of United We Dream. “From what we are seeing from the community level is over 1,000 deportations every day. That’s the fuel that undocumented families are seeing in the country.”
Hong, a graduate student and Harvard researcher with a documented history of activism, said he’d interrupt the president again if given the chance.
“Right now President Obama is not listening to our voices,” he said. “That’s why I felt that was the only avenue for me to speak out the truth.”