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.
Critics, including some who first endorsed the program, say it has led to the deportation of people who have committed minor traffic violations and undermined bonds between law enforcement and immigrant communities as well as torn apart families.
A 2011 study by academic researchers found that Secure Communities disproportionately affected Hispanics and that a third of those deported had spouses or children who were U.S. citizens. Despite changes announced last summer, deportation orders were still being handed out to noncriminals and youths.
Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 and needs a similar level of support to counter other erosions in his support. Polls show him with a large lead on Romney — who will address Hispanic leaders in Orlando Thursday — but they also mask an enthusiasm gap, which many Hispanics attribute to Obama’s enforcement policies and failed promises.
The growing power of the Hispanic vote has awakened Republicans and the deportation controversy gave an opening to Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to work on a plan that would grant legal status to children of illegal immigrant — a variation of the DREAM Act.
Of course, the people being deported or even the young people that might be saved from deportation under Obama’s new policy cannot vote, but most legal immigrants know someone who has or could be affected.
Rubio, who cited Pelaez’s case as the impetus, never put his proposal to paper but was working to build Republican support and generating lots of media attention.
But Obama beat him to it. His plan is similar, though not exact. It would block deportations and give some youths legal work permits good for two years with renewals.
In one act, Obama managed to stunt Rubio, come across like a savior to frustrated “dreamers” like Pelaez, and excite Hispanic voters. He also has flummoxed Republicans. Some have described the policy as “amnesty” while others, such as Rubio, have criticized it for sidestepping Congress.
For now at least, Obama has forced Romney off his message. On Wednesday Romney’s campaign held a conference call with reporters to talk about the economy but the first three questions were about immigration and aides ended the call.
Romney is under pressure to articulate his position on immigration.
He has been cautious so far about Obama’s directive, which could affect 800,000 people. Romney has implied he likes Rubio’s approach, which is not radically different from Obama’s. But he also has to satisfy a GOP base that has pushed for tougher enforcement and rails against amnesty.
“Romney can’t stand up there and say, ’No, I’m going to reverse this order and deport these 800,000 people,” said Segura, the Stanford expert. “That will really win him some votes.”