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Obama and immigration: High hopes, a mixed record

September 22, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has a complicated history with the politics of immigration.

The son of a Kenyan immigrant, Obama has been both embraced and scorned by immigrant advocates who have viewed him as both a champion and an obstacle to their cause.

In 2006, about 30 Mexican nationals desperate to avoid deportations that would separate them from their families appealed to him for help when he was their U.S. senator. He turned them down.

Now, as president, a similar decision is upon him again, this time with the status of millions of immigrants at stake.

Advocacy groups are hoping that Obama will leave a mark for posterity by moving to allow work permits for millions of immigrants living illegally in this country.

“Some of the hard feelings could be forgotten at the end of the day if he acts boldly,” said Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.

Obama’s record on immigration, however, is one of caution and deliberation punctuated by moments of determination amid some broken promises. With the president delaying executive action on the work permits until after the November congressional election, some Democrats worry that expectations have been raised beyond what he can deliver.

“If they weren’t sky high before, they are now,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I’m not convinced they will meet the expectations of the Hispanic community.”

White House officials say the delay will not affect the scope of what Obama intends to do.

“The goal is going to be to do as meaningful a package of reforms as is available to the president through his executive authority,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said.

Over time, Obama has built a varied immigration record:

In 2006, Obama also angered Latino leaders when he voted to erect a 700-mile double fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

—He backed compromise legislation in 2007 to overhaul immigration laws. Whether his support for a labor-backed change to the legislation contributed to the bill’s demise remains a point of debate.

—During the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, Obama took the side of pro-immigrant forces in supporting driver’s licenses for immigrants living illegally in the United States. That stand distinguished him from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opposed them.

—Obama galvanized Latino voters with promises to take up an immigration overhaul during his presidency’s first year. But once in office, he backed off to deal with the recession and launch a health care overhaul.

—Under his watch, deportation numbers began to rise. Obama argued he could not act unilaterally to reduce deportations.

—In 2012, as he campaigned for re-election, his administration announced a plan to defer deportation for certain immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. Since then, the program has deferred deportation and provided work permits for nearly 600,000 immigrants.

—He backed bipartisan immigration legislation passed in the Senate in 2013 and held out hope the Republican-controlled House would follow. This past June, Obama was finally convinced the House would not vote, and he promised to act on his own shortly after summer’s end.

—This month, Obama decided to wait until after the election, saying he worried his actions would be undermined by campaign politics.

White House officials caution that without a change in the law, Obama’s actions are limited.

“Whatever we do is going to be imperfect,” Palmieri said, “and is not going to be as big as we need.”

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