President Obama's Deportation Dilemmas

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 26, 2013

The president was caught in a bind. He had promised that immigration reform would be one of his top agenda items during his first year in office, or at least his first term, and it wasn't. What's more, activists from the Spanish-background community were angry that he had broken his promise. They pushed him to make a commitment to immigration "reform", which, in their minds and his, required a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11.5 million illegal aliens living and working in the United States.

However, in order to pass that legislation the president needed the support from Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate. Gaining Democratic support in both houses of Congress was likely, but legalization of a citizenship path would be impossible without substantial Republican support in both houses.

The problem the president faced here is that Republicans felt they had been traduced and betrayed in 1986 by agreeing to a supposed one-time amnesty for illegal aliens then living and working in the country, in return for promises of increased immigration enforcement that never materialized. And they were right; they had been.

So the president needed his version of immigration "reform" that would legalize the illegal alien population to satisfy demands from the activist wing of a political constituency central to his reelection prospects. However, he was unlikely to get the help he needed from Republicans to pass such a bill without demonstrating that he was serious about immigration enforcement.

What to do?

The president chose to pursue what must have seemed at the time like a clever strategy; one that seemed to respond to Republican concerns, but did so in a way that implemented a de facto legalization for illegal aliens who were not convicted of serious crimes. In this one respect, at least Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was correct, though he never made much of a point about who was responsible.

First, the administration announced that it would henceforth focus on deporting serious criminals. In the words of John Morton, ICE director, immigration enforcement would henceforth focus on felons and repeat lawbreakers.

A focus on finding and deporting serious criminals among the illegal population made good policy sense. After all, among the first roles of government is to protect the lives of its citizens. Protecting American from murderers, rapists, and other serious offenders in the illegal alien community was an obvious responsibility of the government at all levels — federal, state, and local. Moreover, that focus made moral and political sense as well, because every crime committed by an illegal alien could be traced to the failure of the federal government to secure America's borders and effectively enforce its immigration laws.

With this initiative, the president was on very solid ground for most Democrats and Republicans, as well as for ordinary Americans. Yet, as bipartisan as support for this policy might be, it still didn't solve the president's political problems.

He wanted, and needed, Americans from Spanish-speaking backgrounds to support him, but activists from that community were still angry with him for not pursuing immigration legislation in his first two years in office when he had solid majorities in both houses of Congress. They were also upset about the deportations of illegal aliens who were not convicted felons.

The president needed to pass immigration legislation to secure the votes of the Spanish-speaking descent community. But this was not likely before the presidential election campaign.

If he failed to draw stronger support from his allies and supporters from the last presidential election, he would loose. And with that loss, his dreams of being recognized as a transforming, even great, leader would be dashed.

Faced with a choice between his ambitions and his circumstances, President Obama chose expediency.

NEXT: How the President Resolved His Deportation Dilemmas, Part 1