Caught between his ambitions and his circumstances, the president tried to present himself as unusually strict on immigration enforcement.
However, he failed to convince Republicans whose help he needed to pass an immigration bill in order to cement his appeal to the Spanish-speaking-descent community. They saw the administration's increasing use of discretion as questionable, at minimum.
For example, in 2010 the administration decided to exempt any student brought to the United States as a child from any deportation proceedings.
In 2011, the administration announced that it would "review all existing deportation cases involving non-criminal immigrants on a case-by-case basis" to see whether there was a case to be made to adjust their status to legal immigrant.
That initiative apparently did not produce the results that the administration wanted and needed. After a review of more than 288,000 deportation cases before the immigration courts, the total suspended by prosecutors so far is less than 2 percent.
And in 2012, the administration unilaterally revised the rule requiring those illegal aliens who applied for a change of status to go back to their home countries to do so. As the New York Times reported, "In essence, officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services are proposing to change the procedures by which illegal immigrants with American family members apply for legal residency — getting a document known as a green card — allowing a crucial early step to take place in the United States rather than in the immigrant's home country."
On the other hand, the activist portion of the Spanish-speaking-decent community was up in arms over the deportation gains the president touted. Ironically, the president was forced to disavow his administration's enforcement hype, as he tried to explain to that community that there was less than meets the eye in his heralded deportation reputation.
At a White House "Open for Questions" roundtable, pressed by a questioner the following exchange occurred:
MR. LERNER: Just to follow up, Mr. President, you just mentioned enforcement of immigration laws in the subject of deportations, and you said that many of those — or it's aimed at criminals. But until now, and until recently, it hadn't been just criminals, or a majority of criminals, those that have been deported. And also, you have been deporting much more immigrants than the previous administration did in eight years. So laws didn't change; enforcement was done even then. Why that emphasis on deportation during your administration?
THE PRESIDENT: The statistics are actually a little deceptive because what we've been doing is, with the stronger border enforcement, we've been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back. That is counted as a deportation, even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours, sent back — that's counted as a deportation.
Here, the president is essentially conceding his critics' point about "cooking the books" on his immigration enforcement record. The irony of his subterfuge is that he was successful in his efforts, but with the wrong party.
Time was up. The 2012 election loomed. The president's reelection and his standing as a historic leader were in doubt.
It was crisis for the president's ambitions and he responded as one does to fundamental threat.
On May 10, 2011, the president delivered a major immigration speech in El Paso, Texas. In it he tried to reassure his needed, but skeptical, Spanish-background community: Speaking of enforcement he said, "I want to emphasize: We are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."
This was an astounding statement. The president had moved from stating that he would focus on apprehending "violent offenders and people convicted of crimes" to explicitly stating that his administration would not attempt to deport anyone who was not a violent offender or convicted of crimes.
A few months later, the president made his reassurances official policy. In the words of an ABC News report, "The Obama administration today announced it will no longer actively seek to deport illegal immigrants who don't have criminal records."
The president had taken giant steps to solve his political problems and had unilaterally jettisoned his constitutional requirement that the president "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed". (Article II, Section 3)
Next: How Obama Finally Solved His Hispanic Reelection Problem