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Obama’s punt on immigration alienates base voters, activists say

Some question premise that the delay of deportation relief helps vulnerable Democrats

WASHINGTON — Betrayal was the overriding sentiment among immigration activists after Barack Obama’s administration reversed itself on an earlier promise and said it would wait until after the November midterm elections to issue any executive action on immigration.

With the Senate majority at stake, the move to hold off on providing deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants was widely seen as an election-year ploy to protect vulnerable congressional Democrats, many of them running in red states like North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Kentucky.

“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,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director for the immigration advocacy group United We Dream, said in a statement. “To wait nine more weeks means the president has agreed to deport more than 70,000 people —more than 1,100 every day — and continues cementing his legacy as the deporter in chief.”

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the immigration group America’s Voice said that feeling disappointed didn’t even begin to cover it.

“I’m outraged, disgusted, disgruntled,” she said. “This is the third promise that we’ve gotten from President Obama that he’s walked back, and in the two months that his moderate Democrats are running around campaigning, tens of thousands of people will be deported.”

But will that palpable anger lead to political consequences for Obama and other Democrats? And where do activists go from here?

Matt Barreto, a co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, said that although Hispanic voters don’t have much of a choice in the 2014 elections — they are unlikely to punish Democrats by voting for Republicans, who have been outright hostile to immigration reform — the real price for the party is in a missed opportunity to mobilize base voters.

According to a recent poll conducted by Latino Decisions in conjunction with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, 87 percent of registered Latino voters said executive action on immigration would make them more enthusiastic about casting a vote for Democrats in the fall. Meanwhile, 54 percent said they would be less enthusiastic about voting at all if the president failed to act.

“I think there was a significant miscalculation on the part of the strategists,” Barreto said. “The only way the Democrats win is a diverse coalition of Latinos, African-Americans, single women and all of these groups that are responsive and empathetic to immigration reform. [The White House] had an opportunity here to look like they were doing the right thing and helping families in need — and they may ultimately do that — but they’re going to lose any mobilization advantage that they had.”

Tramonte, too, said that although immigration advocates would be pressing their constituencies to flex their political muscle at the polls in November regardless, it was easy to understand the disenchantment.

“It makes the choice more difficult for folks,” she said. “The Democrats are going to win the majority of Latino voters. That’s not the question. The question is how many voters could have been mobilized if the president had leaned in and taken actual steps on this issue, versus how many people are disillusioned with politics as usual.”

Moreover, Tramonte and Barreto took issue with the premise that the delay in executive action would help vulnerable Democrats at all. Voters who staunchly oppose immigration reform were never likely to support Sen. Kay Hagan from North Carolina or Mark Begich from Arkansas anyway.

“This idea that Obama’s delay will somehow save the Senate is ridiculous. This is not a voting issue for most voters. It’s a voting issue for a constituency that the president is taking for granted,” she said.

Now activists’ ire will in part shift to Democrats who blocked the measure.

“Of course they’re going to hear from advocates and their communities and their allies,” Tramonte said.

Some were more sympathetic to the president’s political pragmatism. David Leopold, an Ohio-based immigration lawyer and a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the president’s mistake was in setting a timeline for the executive action in the first place.

Delaying the decision until after the elections takes the issue off the table for this year’s congressional races and punts it to 2016, when there are competitive Senate races in states with larger Latino populations, where candidates would likely do well to embrace reform. Republican candidates vying for the White House — and for a larger share of the growing Hispanic vote than they’ve been able to capture — will be forced to stake out a position.

“We’ve had a dysfunctional immigration system for decades at this point, and it’s getting worse all the time, and we’ve got 11 million who are living in the shadows who need to be brought out,” Leopold said. “Honestly, six more weeks or two more months in the scheme of things is not going to make that much of a difference.”

He noted nonetheless that the timing does matter for families who continue to be separated by deportation, but that could be fixed if the president simply directed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to rigorously follow the enforcement priorities he has already outlined, targeting criminal law breakers over law-abiding migrants.

Still, for those with undocumented family members living under the threat of deportation, six weeks can seem like an eternity. Ask Elena Marquez, 14, who traveled to White House on Monday from Homestead, Florida, with about 30 other children of undocumented immigrants to plead with the president for relief. For her, it was already too late; her father was deported two years ago.

“Please stop the deportations now,” she said. “Not just for my dad but for other children who are becoming orphans every day.”

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