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Immigrants Are Going to Have to Keep Waiting for Change

Obama promised he would stop deporting so many people. Instead, he's started deporting more, and there's little hope left that he'll live up to his promises before his term ends.

Protesters greet President Obama in Austin, Texas. Photo by Todd Dwyer

It was never going to matter how many people Barack Obama deported, how many families he was willing to tear apart because someone crossed a line on a map without filling out the proper paperwork. It was never going to matter because the President of the United States is a Democrat, while his chief political opponents are Republicans, and the debate goes by a prepared script, not reality. He could have deported all 12 million undocumented immigrants by airlifting them back home via Predator drone and he still would have been labeled a blame-America Marxist who wants to give half the country back to Mexico.

But Obama did it anyway. With two-and-a-half years left in his administration, he has already surpassed George W. Bush—and every other president—when it comes to forcibly removing immigrants, having deported more than two million people so far (which comes out to around 1,110 people each day). Rather than welcome refugee children fleeing violence in Central America, his administration has requested billions of dollars to speed their deportation, while blaming his predecessor for signing a law that allows them to seek asylum. Several of those who have already been deported were murdered upon their return.

But according to the partisan script, Obama, deep down inside, does not want to do this. It breaks his heart, which comforts his liberal supporters while enraging the conservative opposition. Both camps have been so convinced of this that they’ve missed the reality right in front of their eyes, which matters much more to those being deported than what’s inside a cynical politician’s hypothetical heart.

On the liberal side, it’s been enough to quiet much of the dissent. Before his election, there were huge rallies for immigrant rights, but after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, many thought they finally had an ally in the White House. Indeed, the president promised that achieving comprehensive reform of America’s broken immigration system would be one of his top priorities. That’s why he had to be so tough and deport-y, he claimed: to convince Republicans to work with him.

Of course, outside of propping up the financial sector and bombing the Middle East, Republicans have never shown much willingness to work with this president on big-ticket legislation. But Obama—either naïve or just playing his base—wanted to keep trying, so earlier this year he begged those calling for “no more deportations” to give him some more time.

A father and son at an immigration rally in San Diego, California. Photo by Michael Righi

In March, the president asked advocates of immigration reform “to stick with him another 90 days, and press hard on Congress,” according to the New York Times. “If those efforts failed to lead to reform, Mr. Obama said he would work with them on administrative relief.”

To that end, the president asked his staff to draw up a list of things he could do that would allow him to enforce immigration laws “more humanely.” Throughout his first term, Obama denied he had the power to do anything of the sort, but in the summer of 2012 he acted unilaterally to grant “deferred action” status to some young people who had been brought to the United States illegally as children, making them the lowest enforcement priorities for deportation (while not altogether removing the threat of it).

Activists (and the AFL-CIO) had hoped the president could, if not halt deportations altogether, at least extend that “deferred action” protection to others, such as the parents of those children. By May 2014, however, Obama asked his staff “to hold off on completing a review of US deportation policies until the end of the summer,” according to the Associated Press.

By June—90 days later—the administration had backtracked altogether, responding to the influx of refugees by announcing a unilateral plan to “detain more [immigrants] and to accelerate their court cases so as to deport them more quickly,” the New York Times reported.

As for taking administrative actions to make the immigration system “more humane”?

“There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this week. At the same time, “There is the chance that it could be after the summer.” No one can really say.

“I would like to know and to think that our president is trying his best,” said journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, perhaps America’s most famous undocumented immigrant, when I spoke to him earlier this summer. “But on this issue, I don’t think it’s been that personal or urgent for him.”

And why should it be? According to the script, he’s doing his best and if there’s anyone to blame, it’s the Republicans in Congress who won’t play nice and work with him. And while Obama may be objectively worse for immigrants than any Republican ever was (Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to millions of undocumented Americans) it’s not like those who support reform are going to turn to the GOP.

The way some Democrats tell it, he only stands to lose by keeping his promise.

“It would have the unhelpful consequence of putting the issue in the news in a way that doesn’t help Democrats, while also not accomplishing anything,” a Democratic strategist told Time magazine. While immigrants in US detention centers might quibble with that assessment, Democrats fear that acting so close to an election could hurt their chances at the polls, which is everything to them.

The president could have acted sooner, of course—months ago, or years even—but now those hoping for change have no choice but to wait some more. Is it time, then, to shift some of the blame for inaction from congressional Republicans to the man refusing to act? Not so fast, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, campaign director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Like many, she holds out hope that the president will in the end prove to be an ally.

“While there are some rumors that the president is not going to act, we have no reason to believe yet that that is true,” Mercado told me. “This is not the time to squabble over who is responsible for a failure to act." Nonetheless, she said, “We know that GOP leadership in the House blocked reform to date.”

While the president has of course reneged on his promises to act before, he probably will do something on immigration at some point in the near future—even if it's after an election his demoralized base won’t turn out for, because he hasn’t done anything for them. Still, those future actions will come too late for the hundreds of thousands of people he has deported while his self-imposed deadlines to act came and went. And with few in leadership roles really willing to blame him for that—contrasting starkly with what the public sees in the streets, where Obama is known as the “deporter-in-chief”—the president likely believes he can get by offering the bare minimum.

People in power tend to act when they fear the people beneath them, when they think there might be a real downside to not acting. When the people think they have a friend in power, the powerful feel little incentive to act on their behalf for there is almost no downside. When you can just ask people to wait patiently another 90 days for action, and they largely do, why even act at all?

Of course, that act is wearing thin and more and more people who once thought Obama an ally now consider him something of an enemy.

Jacob Swenson of National People's Action, a grassroots network of social justice organizations that has lobbied for immigration reform, told me he’s “disappointed that President Obama continues to stall, rather than take immediate action to protect families.” Since his group rallied outside the White House back in April, “over 135,000 people have been separated from their families as a result of deportations that the president could have prevented.”

“Ultimately,” said Swenson, “both Republicans and President Obama are failing our families.” When more people recognize that both are to blame—that Republicans blocked comprehensive reform while the most powerful Democrat unilaterally deported a record number of immigrants—they may start seeing the change they were promised. At the very least, politicians will stop taking their support for granted.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter.