President Obama promised at the State of the Union that he would use executive action to push his agenda forward, bypassing Republican obstruction in Congress. In "State of the Union: Immigration Executive Action", I urged him to use his "phone and pen" to grant relief to the thousands of immigrants living in fear of deportation. Six months later, I am not surprised by this week's announcement that he would use executive authority. I see it as strategy that is as politically necessary as it is brilliant.
As I have been writing and explaining on national television since the Fall of 2013, the President and Senate Republicans who passed comprehensive immigration reform were outmaneuvered by House Republicans who killed the Senate proposal. Soon, the heat shifted from the GOP as the party that blocked immigration reform to Mr. Obama as the so-called "Deporter-in-Chief." The record number of deportations is not only tearing apart families and neighborhoods. Significant pressure has revealed fissures in the advocacy community--between who I call the "D.C. Latinos" such as civil rights organizations the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and more grassroots groups led by the DREAMers. Whereas the D.C. Latinos focus is policy, lobbying, and enjoy a proximity to the White House (Cecilia Muñoz, who spent years spearheading NCLR's policy and legislation work now chairs the President's Domestic Policy Council and the administration's immigration stance), the grassroots groups are on the front lines. The tension became public at the 2011 NCLR national convention where DREAMers interrupted the President's speech which I covered and write about in "Anatomy of an Immigration Debate: Presidential Carne Asada at NCLR."
When I traveled the country reporting on Election 2012, local community groups I met in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona churches and supermercado parking lots expressed disappointment at the President's inability to fulfill his 2008 candidate promise of immigration reform. More damaging was their anger at the skyrocketing deportations. In Spring of 2014 when NCLR chief Janet Murguía christened Mr. Obama the Deporter-in-Chief, people in the bodegas, bakeries, and church pews had been calling him El Deportador--for years. The drumbeat of criticism only grows louder because of the unaccompanied children. Now any Beltway policy and politics disconnect is magnified by the tragedy of children alone facing deportation proceedings broadcast on Spanish-language television. Like a large swath of the American viewing public according to Nielsen ratings, I've been glued to Univision during the World Cup. When the President announced his executive action plans, both Univision and Telemundo cut into programming of telenovelas and soccer coverage, with the wall to wall coverage extending to local news and PSAs. The mixed status defining many of these viewers is politically risky for politicians. Just as people without legal status are watching, so too are citizens who are or can register to vote.
Mr. Obama knows Congress has the power of the purse which is why requesting the $2 billion dollars in funds to mitigate the escalating crisis of unaccompanied minors (which is expected to surpass 60,000 this year in addition to at least 39,000 women) is strategically brilliant. Mr. Obama, the Administration, and Democrats have received blowback from the immigration and deportation debacle, prompting Hispanics to demand a slow down in deportations and compassion to the children arriving alone. The President can now deflect firstly by declaring as he did in the Rose Garden that because Republicans have blocked immigration reform, he has been forced to fly solo to help kids and women. Secondly, when Republicans come back from the July 4th holiday and likely refuse or even file a lawsuit (!), then he can declare: here is yet one more example of GOP obstruction.
In the longview, does Obama perched atop an Immigration White Horse save Democrats from the discontent of Latino voters who may not mobilize in future elections? Have Republicans kissed winning the White House in 2016 and beyond adios? Election 2012 holds clues. An historic 11 million Hispanics voted. But 12 million who are eligible did not as I write in "March on Washington: the Next 50 Years or What I Said on MSNBC."
Although the Latino vote was the key in the coalition that delivered reelection to the President, power in numbers is only as good as its strategic and consistent use.
Given today's immigration debacle blown up by the unaccompanied children, we must ask:
If 15 million eligible Hispanics had cast ballots in 2012, would the President have declared immigration executive action at the State of the Union and not six months later?
If eligible Latinos voted in midterm elections which are generally low turn out, would the results neutralize the power of the extremists holding the Republican party hostage?
For the first time, I joined a panel on MSNBC's Hardball with guest host Steve Kornacki and USA Today reporter Alan Gomez to discuss the President's announcement on seeking executive authority on immigration. Click below to watch the video which aired on June 30, 2014.Click to read more of my posts on politics and immigration. What would you like to see the President do on immigration in the time he has left in office?