Obama's broken pledge: How election politics made 'pawns' out of illegal immigrants

President Obama had said he’d use executive authority to bypass Congress on immigration law 'without further delay.' Now, with some Democratic Senate seats in danger, aides say Obama will wait until after the November elections.

Jacquelyn Martin,/AP
In June, President Obama said he was done waiting for House Republicans to act on immigration, and that he planned to act on his own via executive action. Now, Obama has decided to delay any executive action on immigration until after the November congressional elections.

President Obama’s decision to break a promise and delay any executive orders from the Oval Office on immigration until after the midterm elections is a pure political play that has its roots in tough lessons learned by Democrats after they passed an assault weapons ban in 1994, insiders and political analysts say.

Facing a tough mid-term election that could swing the Senate to Republicans and give the White House full congressional headwinds, Obama called allies on Saturday to let them know he plans to break his promise to act on immigration “without further delay” after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder returned recommendations by the “end of summer.”

“The reality the president has had to weigh is that we’re in the midst of the political season,” a White House aide told reporters. “Because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections.” The official set “end of the year” as the new deadline.

That explanation did not fly with many of the President’s allies on the immigration front.

“Today the President and the Senate Democrats have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants and Latinos are simply viewed as political pawns,” said Eddie Carmona, director of the faith-based PICO National Network, which works for immigrant rights. “Unfortunately, this political game comes with the consequence of tearing apart families.”

Unable to get immigration reform packages past Republicans’ in the House, the President had been expected to announce a policy widening the scope of his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, which allowed some illegal immigrants to stay and work in country. He has been considering steps to increase border security, streamline processing of border scofflaws, as well as provide a way for people who have been in the United States illegally for a long time to become legal residents.

"I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of ... action by Congress, I'm going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office, because it's the right thing to do for the country," he said.

But a crush of some 57,000 undocumented migrant children flooding the border this year complicated Obama’s plan, as Republicans argued the President’s decision to soften immigration enforcement without congressional approval helped create the illegal child migration.

Frustration on the right with the state of the southern border, especially as some argued its porousness was becoming a national security problem given the country’s entanglement with Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East, has made Democratic incumbents in states like Arkansas, North Carolina, and Louisiana nervous about their prospects in November.

Many Americans have also chafed at what George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley in June called Obama’s “imperial presidency,” where it’s “become something of a mantra from this administration that the president has decided he will not comply with federal law.”

“Some lawmakers and political observers are attributing any potential delay in unveiling a plan on the upcoming November elections,” writes Bill Straub for PJ Media. “Republicans stand a better-than-even chance of picking up six Senate seats, which would provide the party with a majority in the upper chamber. By pushing an immigration plan, Obama might be jeopardizing the chances of vulnerable incumbent Democrats in Republican-leaning states.”

Ultimately, Obama’s advisers likely drew a lesson from 1994, political scientist say. That was the year President Bill Clinton signed a 10-year assault weapon ban, which in turn has been credited with increasing the political stature of the gun rights movement and the National Rifle Association – a situation that hit Obama significantly, even personally, in the defeat of a post-Newtown gun control package in early 2013.

The counterweight of the gun rights movement could be felt again on Saturday. Backlash from the assault weapons ban (which Congress allowed to expire in 2004) pushed Republicans to new political heights as they took over Congress in 1994 and again in the 2000 presidential election, which then-Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee lost to George W. Bush of Texas.

Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration until after the election could help defend vulnerable Democrats, so it was hardly unexpected that Republicans joined immigration activists in criticizing the White House.

"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," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R) of Kentucky, said. "This is clearly not decision-making designed around the best policy."

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