Obama to delay action on immigration: Should he have just gone ahead?

President Obama will delay any executive actions on immigration until after the midterm elections, but it's not clear whether that will really help Democrats.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
Demonstrators protest at Freedom Plaza in Washington on Aug. 2, asking President Obama to modify his deportations policies. Mr. Obama is delaying his immigration plan until after Election Day.

As expected, the Obama administration has announced that it will delay any announcement of executive action on immigration until after the November elections:

WASHINGTON — President Obama has delayed action to reshape the nation’s immigration system without congressional approval until after the November elections, bowing to the concerns of Senate Democrats on the ballots, White House officials said on Saturday.

The decision is a striking reversal of Mr. Obama’s vow to take action on immigration soon after summer’s end. The president made that promise on June 30, standing in the Rose Garden, where he angrily denounced Republican obstruction and said he would use the power of his office to protect immigrant families from the threat of deportation

“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,” a White House official said. “Because he wants to do this in a way that’s sustainable, the president will take action on immigration before the end of the year.”

White House officials insist that Mr. Obama is more determined than ever to do that — eventually. But the president and his top aides have concluded that an immigration announcement before November could anger conservatives across the country, cripple Democratic efforts to retain control of the Senate, and severely set back any hope for progress on a permanent immigration overhaul.

White House aides began calling elected officials and immigration advocates Saturday morning to inform them that the president had decided not to act before the election. The president is expected to talk about the issue during an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” to be broadcast on Sunday.

The delay is certain to frustrate Hispanic activists who have been pressing Mr. Obama for months to sidestep Congress. Leaders of several immigration groups said their members would be furious with the president for raising — and then dashing — their hopes.

Mr. Obama’s advisers appear to have persuaded the president that he will be able to win back the support of immigrant activists, and create a personal legacy, if he waits until after the midterm elections to announce the sweeping executive actions.

The announcement’s timing has developed into a political problem for Mr. Obama. By saying that he would act on his own, the president heightened expectations among Hispanics that he would finally address the deportation fears of 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in the United States for decades.

Among the possibilities that administration officials have explored is the unilateral expansion of a program that would provide many illegal immigrants with work permits to allow them to legally live and work in the country indefinitely.

As I noted when I wrote about this last month, there had been hints for the better part of August that the administration was considering pushing back any announcement of executive action on immigration until after the election. For the most part, this was due to the fact that Democrats in red states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, and North Carolina who are already facing tough reelection fights were privately urging the White House to not take any action that would potentially harm the party’s chances in the battle for control of the Senate. The theory, obviously, is that whatever action the president is contemplating would do more to energize Republicans in these states than it would to get Latino and other voters who might favor the actions to vote in a midterm election where turnout among such groups is expected to be low to begin with. Given this, and the fact that the senators in each of these states are all in battles that put them within or near the margin of error with their Republican opponents. Given that, the politically smart thing to do is to delay the action until after the midterms.

Of course, it’s unclear whether this delay is actually going to avert the negative reaction that Democrats feared from the executive actions to begin with. It’s fairly obvious that the delay is purely political, and while we don’t know what the substance of the actions the President is contemplating might end up being, it seems fairly clear from reports that what we’re looking at is some kind of expansion of the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program that the president announced in 2012. From the beginning, the tea party and other anti-immigration reform activists have branded that move, falsely, as some form of amnesty. In this case, it seems obvious that they’ll use the the announcement of the delay to rally their supporters in the same way they would have used the announcement of executive action itself. In that regard, one wonders whether the president shouldn’t have just gone ahead and announced his plans now and let the chips fall where they may.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/. 

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