President Obama’s decision to delay long-promised immigration reform until after the midterm elections represents a “slap to the face” for the Latino community, rights groups have said.
In an interview with NBC that aired Sunday, the president back-tracked on a pledge he made in June to use executive action by the end of the summer to shield millions of people from deportation.
In a statement, the White House confirmed that the timeframe had now slipped to “before the end of the year,” placing it after November’s elections. An administration official cited “extreme politicization of this issue” by Republicans as being behind the rethink, adding that Obama believes that an earlier rollout “would be harmful to the policy itself.”
In his interview with NBC, Obama explained that an increase in the number of immigrant children entering the U.S. illegally this summer changed the politics surrounding the issue of immigration. He denied that it was put back for the purposes of protecting Democrats in the forthcoming midterms.
Nonetheless, news of the delay drew immediate criticism from pro-reform activists.
“We are bitterly disappointed in the President and we are bitterly disappointed in the Senate Democrats,” said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of immigration reform group America’s Voice. “The President and Senate Democrats have chosen politics over people; the status quo over solving real problems.”
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, called the postponement of executive action "another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community."
"Where we have demanded leadership and courage from both Democrats and the president, we've received nothing but broken promises and a lack of political backbone," she said.
Despite White House attempts to mitigate the fallout and point fingers at the Republicans, the postponement will come as a likely embarrassment for Obama, who has long set his sites on reform of an immigration system he has repeatedly characterized as “broken”
In a speech at the White House Rose Garden in late June, a frustrated Obama said he would act promptly after the Republican-controlled House declared it would not be taking up any measures to overhaul the immigration system.
Obama said he had directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to give him recommendations for executive action by the onset of fall.
Although denying that the motivation for the delay was to shield Democrats at the midterms, Obama did acknowledge in the NBC interview that politics were central to his delay. He said a partisan fight in July over how to address the issue of unaccompanied minors crossing the border with Mexico had created an impression of an immigration crisis. As such there existed a volatile climate for taking the measures he had promised to take, he said.
"The truth of the matter is — is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem," the President said. "I want to spend some time, even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, 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."
Two White House officials told the Associated Press that by delaying, the Obama administration weighed the benefits of acting now and running the risk of immigration getting blamed for any Democratic losses, especially in the Senate where Democratic control hangs in the balance. Among those considered most at risk are Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Republican leaders in Congress were also swift to criticize the president, calling his decision a cynical ploy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said Obama's move amounted to "Washington politics at its worst."
"What's so cynical about today's immigration announcement is that the president isn't saying he'll follow the law, he's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections," McConnell said. "This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy."
Partisan fighting erupted recently over how to address the increased flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the U.S. border with Mexico. The officials said the White House had not envisioned such a battle when Obama made his pledge in June.
Since then, the number of minors caught alone illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States has been declining. That decrease and Congress' absence from Washington during August has taken attention away from the border for now.
Still, the dispute over how to deal with the surge of Central American border crossers threatened to spill over into the larger debate over immigration and the fate of 11 million immigrants in the United States who either entered illegally or overstayed their visas and have been in the U.S. for some time.
The Democratic-led Senate last year passed a broad overhaul of immigration that boosted border security, increased visas for legal immigrants and a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the country. But the Republican-controlled House balked at acting on any broad measure.
Al Jazeera and wire services