False Promise: Immigration Policy in the President's First Term

Given the poor state of the economy, the president's reelection prospects in 2012 were uncertain. His most fervent supporters still adored him, but there were fewer of them. And many others questioned whether he had been successful in addressing their number one concern — the economy.

However, not every voting group cared only about the economy. Members of the community from Spanish-speaking backgrounds cared a great deal about the economy, but also immigration reform because it touched so many members of their community.

Some members of that community felt that the president had not been honest with them. In a 2010 radio interview with Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo on Univision the following exchange took place:

EPS: Many Hispanics feel disappointed with you because comprehensive immigration reform has not been passed.

And later in the same interview:

EPS: But Mr. President, you were able to pass a healthcare plan and you worked a lot for that. And most of my listeners, they haven't seen that, the same way that you worked for healthcare for immigration reform. The same effort.

And still again:

EPS: But how can you ask for their vote now ... if, like ... most of my listeners, that's what they see ... that you haven't worked that hard to make comprehensive immigration reform now.

The president answered all three observations by blaming Republicans.

The question came up in more pointed form several years later, in a September 20, 2012, Univision town hall meeting hosted by Jorge Ramos:

Q: I want to ask you something that is known as the "Obama promise", and you knew that I was going to ask you about that. On May 28th, 2008, we had a conversation in Denver, Colorado, and you told me the following — and I'm going to quote you: "But I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support." I want to emphasize "the first year". At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.

The president responded by blaming the economy and reminding his host that he had convened meetings of persons interested in immigration reform. But he spent most of his long answer, again, blaming Republicans.

Still, Ramos didn't let the president off the hook:

Q: It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don't want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn't keep that promise.

The president answered this observation, as he had all the others, with an assertion of his heart-felt dedication to immigration reform and especially the Dream Act along with a disclaimer that he was only the head of the executive branch and he had to work with both Congress and the courts on national policy. He said that he had kept his promise to work hard for every American to have a chance at achieving the American dream, and that he supported the Dream Act and Mitt Romney did not.

The president answered these questions as best he could, but it was clear that the president's reelection prospects were in serious trouble, at least among opinion leaders in the Hispanic community.

The president needed a dramatic, public, easily understood policy intervention that would deliver, or seem to, what he had promised, but had not committed his political capital to accomplish.

Thus was born the president's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) initiative that allowed persons illegally living in the United States, who came here as children, to have a regular, renewable immigration status.

That unprecedented exercise of administrative discretion to alter American immigration law was announced on June 15, 2012, but in reality it had been in the planning stages for several years.

Next: Selective Immigration Enforcement: Discretion in the Service of the President's Reelection