Obama Defends Immigration Reform Delay, But It May Still Hurt Democratic Chances In 2016

In politics, decisions made in favor of long-term success over short-term gratification are seldom received well, and no one is feeling the sting of that trade-off more than President Obama. On Saturday, Obama declared that he would delay immigration reform until after midterm elections, infuriating Hispanics, immigration reform activists, and politicians from both parties. Critics from nearly every direction claimed that the president's decision was motivated purely by politics, and Frank Sharry, executive director of the group America’s Voice, said that Obama's move put "politics over people." And with an ever-increasing Latino electorate expected to make a key difference in the 2016 election, Obama's perceived broken promise may have detrimental effects on his party's prospects.

Democrats have been divided about the issue since Obama first began considering executive action. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), who has already taken considerable flack from her Republican opponent for defending Obamacare and other key Democratic policies, said Obama “should not take” unilateral action when it comes to immigration reform. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) agreed with his colleague, noting that executive action is not necessarily the best course of action, as an uncooperative legislative body "doesn’t give the President carte blanche authority to sidestep Congress when he doesn’t get his way."

Hagan and Pryor, who are already fighting hard to keep their seats in Senate, feared that immigration reform, especially if unapproved by Congress, would give Republicans the perfect ammunition to completely eliminate a Democratic presence. Neither one of these senators represent states with large Latino populations, and although some lawmakers would benefit from a Hispanic boost, Hagan and Pryor would most likely be hurt by sweeping reform. And with Obama left with two more years in office and high hopes for a Democrat in office in 2016, a Republican controlled Congress would likely once again create gridlock and stall political progress.

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But there were others on the left who seemed unconcerned with their fates in Congress, and were rather more concerned with the president's June 30 promise that he would deal with immigration himself after endless roadblocks presented by congressional Republicans. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Il), in a column for The Guardian, told "timid colleagues to get out of the way and let the president take action," adding, "President Obama should lean in and take executive action on immigration – now."

Warning that Hispanic voters would likely "feel duped or tricked" if Obama were to renege on his word, Gutierrez stated, "We cannot be a pro-immigrant party only when it is convenient." Unfortunately, it would appear that convenience has played a key role in Obama's decision this time around.

Obama's Defense

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The president, however, has defended his decision, and on Sunday morning, will appear on Meet the Press to discuss his controversial move. While Obama told Chuck Todd that politics did come into action when addressing the enormous influx of unaccompanied minors from southern borders earlier in the summer, he denied that his resolve to postpone action on immigration reform had anything to do with protecting vulnerable senators.

Instead, the president cited reason and sustainability as motivating factors, saying "I...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." Obama added, "...when I take executive action, I want to make sure that it’s sustainable," and some feared that a unilateral move now would soon be overturned, which could delay meaningful immigration reform for years or even decades.

Fierce backlash

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But despite his justifications, Obama appears to have lost key support amongst Latinos and immigration reformists. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), said in a statement, "The president's actions leave those who looked to him for hope feeling alone, ignored and used." Cesar Vargas, director of the DREAM Action Coalition, who said, "We know where Republicans stand, and what this shows now is that Democrats are also willing to throw Latinos and immigrants under the bus."

Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president, expressed similar sentiments, saying "[Obama] broke his promise to the millions of immigrants and Latinos who are looking for him to lead on this issue in the wake of Republicans’ dysfunction and obstruction." But most damning of all was National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía, who warned of retribution for the postponement, saying

[The Democrats] might rest easier tonight knowing they've avoided another inconvenient political problem, but I guarantee that the dreams they have shattered today will haunt them far into the future.

The hispanic vote

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Murguía's words are more than a little threatening. The Latino vote was absolutely key to Obama's re-election in 2012, and will likely be critical again in 2016. In the last presidential election, Hispanic voters comprised 10 percent of the electorate for the first time in history. Currently at 17 percent of the total American population, Latinos are the fastest growing minority, and they chose Obama over Mitt Romney by a staggering margin of 71 percent to 27 percent. Since 2004, Hispanic voters have throw less and less support to Republican candidates, with George W. Bush receiving 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, John McCain receiving 31 percent in 2008, and Romney at a record low with his 27 percent.

From 2008 to 2012 alone, the number of registered Latino voters increased 26 percent, and Obama himself recognized the importance of the Hispanic population, saying to the Des Moines Register

Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.
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In the same interview, Obama said he was "confident" that immigration reform would come to fruition during his administration, which likely motivated Latinos to vote for him. 2012 Pew Hispanic Center exit poll numbers showed that 77 percent of Hispanic voters called for immigration reform, and with Republicans unlikely to budge on the matter, the Democrats were the logical choice.

But now, there seems to be little clarity when it comes to which party is on the side of Hispanics in the United States. And with 2016 inching closer and closer every day, I can only hope that Obama and the Democrats didn't sacrifice the presidency to keep a couple seats in the midterms.

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