WASHINGTON -- A week after the bombshell announcement he was blocking the deportation of young illegal immigrants, President Barack Obama will arrive in Florida on Friday flush with confidence.
Hispanics, a growing voting power, are energized. A new poll shows broad support for the policy. And GOP rival Mitt Romney is struggling to respond.
When both candidates address the influential National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando this week, make no mistake, Obama will have the upper hand. But beneath the image of the victorious defender of immigrants is a starkly different reality.
Obama has been tougher on deportations than any modern president — expelling nearly 1.5 million people so far. Many have been criminals, but the effort has also torn apart families and hurt some of the young people Obama now wants to help.
“You can’t describe it. It’s a whole tornado of emotions,” said Daniela Pelaez, 18, a valedictorian at North Miami Senior High who faced deportation to her native Colombia this year before getting a reprieve.
Deportations soared as Obama failed to follow through on a campaign promise to enact immigration reform, even when Democrats controlled Congress. “The community has felt let down by him,” Pelaez said.
Obama, who will speak in Orlando Friday before a Tampa campaign event, gambled that by building credibility with Republicans through stepped up border security and deportations, he could gain support for a broader immigration overhaul.
“The deportations got him nothing, and he paid a very big price,” said Gary Segura, an expert on immigration politics at Stanford University. “That’s been the leitmotif negotiating strategy for the Obama administration on every topic. Give away too much, get almost nothing in return. They really messed up.”
Instead of crediting him for adopting their border-first approach, Republicans have cast Obama as a hypocrite.
“He was trying to be everything to everybody,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush. “To some, he portrayed himself as ’Mr. Compassion’ and to others he wants to portray himself as more aggressive than Joe Arpaio,” the tough on immigration sheriff from Arizona.
The Obama administration says it followed Congress’ directive when more money was appropriated for deportations, roughly enough for 400,000 people per year, and denies politics as a motivation. It notes that the removal of convicted criminals in 2011 was up 89 percent from 2008, while border crossings and violence have gone down.
“The reason we are doing it is because our job is to enforce the law and to do it effectively,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.
Muñoz pointed to steps Obama has taken to be more deliberate about who is picked up for deportation, an effort to better target dangerous criminals. Last Friday’s announcement, which gives more prosecutorial discretion, is a continuation of that approach, she said.
The numbers accelerated as the Obama administration pressed a nationwide program called Secure Communities, in which anyone booked for arrest has their fingerprints checked with the Department of Homeland Security database on immigration.