Crucial Constituents

Obama Gets Smart on Immigration With New Policy for DREAMers

Latinos frustrated by years of record deportations and ineffective policy are ecstatic at the president's executive order halting forced removals for many young undocumented immigrants. Michelle Goldberg on Obama's canny move. Plus, we answer 7 key questions about the new policy.

06.15.12 6:49 PM ET

For the last year, there’s been a growing anger among many Latino voters and activists over President Obama’s immigration record. Chicago Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, one of the first elected Latino officials to endorse Obama in 2008, has twice been arrested outside the White House demanding action on behalf of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for college graduates and military veterans who were brought into the United States illegally as children. At the liberal technology Netroots Nation conference this month, DREAM activist Gaby Pacheco compared Obama to a domestic abuser and said Latino voters need to get over the idea that he really loves them. Some of the undocumented immigrants who call themselves DREAMers have held sit-ins in Obama campaign offices.

The administration’s policy of prosecutorial discretion, issued last year and meant to grant relief to many otherwise law-abiding immigrants with deep community ties, has been an enormous disappointment, with less than 2 percent of deportation cases being closed. Indeed, Obama has presided over a record number of deportations—almost 400,000 a year. “We have been so frustrated, knocking our head against the wall,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group. Many warned of an enthusiasm gap among Latino voters that could prove fatal to Obama’s reelection.

Not anymore. Just as Obama’s decision to publicly support gay marriage has galvanized gay supporters, Friday’s executive order protecting young people who would be eligible to stay in this country under the DREAM Act has left activists ecstatic. Gutiérrez tweeted that he was “overjoyed & proud that [Obama] has acted.” Sharry calls it the “biggest move in 25 years” and said it would “result in the legalization of more people at any time than since 1986,” when President Reagan signed an immigration amnesty.

Under Obama’s executive order, young people who would be eligible for protection under the DREAM Act can receive work permits and protection from deportation for two years, with the possibility of renewal. “This without a doubt will lead to a minimum of 800,000 people getting relief,” said Sharry. For the ambitious young people trapped in legal limbo in the country they’ve grown up in, Obama’s order will be life-changing. It also may end up being transformative for the 2012 election.

“We are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids,” the president said Friday afternoon, as he made the announcement in the White House’s Rose Garden.

“My first thought is, how wonderful for the people whose lives this affects,” says Justin Gross, an assistant professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill and chief statistician for the polling firm Latino Decisions. “My second thought is Arizona is definitely in play.”

Latino voters are likely to prove crucial to the outcome in many swing states. According to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic voters comprised 41 percent of the 2008 electorate in New Mexico, 15 percent in Nevada, and 13 percent in Colorado. In Arizona, they made up 16 percent of the vote. Most polls show the Hispanic electorate going overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012; a recent Latino Decisions survey gave him a 43 percent margin. But in recent months, turnout has been in doubt.

The DREAM Act, which has close to 90 percent support among Latino voters, is covered extensively in the Spanish-language press, as is Obama’s deportation record. Some disillusioned voters, says Gross, are saying, “You could vote for Mitt Romney, who says he wants to deport everyone, or you could vote for Obama, who’s already doing it.”

Romney, of course, can’t openly attack Obama’s immigration record for being too harsh without alienating his own base. Under the radar, though, some conservatives have been doing just that, hoping to diminish Latino turnout in November. In Nevada, as CBS News reported last month, a group formed by Alfonso Aguilar, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, planned to spend up to $1 million on ads painting Obama as “the most anti-immigrant president” in American history. Sharry was expecting other such efforts.

“What we imagined was going to happen was that Karl Rove, who gets the importance of the Hispanic vote, was going to use credible Hispanic surrogates to run ads in Spanish saying, ‘Obama promised immigration reform and all he’s done is separated your families,’” Sharry says. Now, though, the future of at least 800,000 bright young immigrants, many with relatives who are citizens, will depend on Obama’s reelection.

Meanwhile, the president’s move puts Romney in a difficult place. Some Tea Party types are apoplectic and will likely press Romney to promise to rescind Obama’s order should he be elected. Other Republicans, though, recognize the danger of alienating the country’s fastest-growing demographic. And a growing number of conservative evangelicals are coming out in favor of humane changes to our immigration laws on moral grounds.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was one of more than 100 leaders to endorse the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, released earlier this week. “I agree with the president’s position, and those who are saying its amnesty need a course in remedial English,” he says. “In order to get amnesty you need to have broken the law. They didn’t break any law. These are young people who were brought here by their parents. They graduated from our high schools, and they want to educate themselves, to serve in our military, to contribute to our society. What’s the problem?”

Not all supporters of the Evangelical Statement of Principles agree. Tom Minnery, Focus n the Family’s Senior Vice President, call the executive order “politically expedient but very poorly planned,” and says it could break up families by deporting parents and leaving teenage children behind. Still, Land says many in the evangelical immigration reform coalition will be unhappy if Romney comes out in favor of repealing the new policy.

What Obama has done, then, is not only right—it’s also very politically smart. “The president has finally, on immigration, figured out that he can make a bold move and divide the Republican Party,” says Sharry. “It’s a new paradigm!”