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Obama Deserves Credit, Not Criticism, for His Recent Immigration Record

Getty Images/Pool

On Thursday night, President Obama will give a speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) gala as he looks to rebuild support in the Latino community. It’s an important speech, because Obama has taken a lot of heat over the past few months for his handling of immigration issues, which could hurt Democrats in the midterms.

Obama has certainly made some mistakes over the past couple months. Republicans, naturally, have tried to use them for political gain. In July, for instance, Representative Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said, "The administration must first recognize its failed immigration and border policies are the source of the problem.” The worst criticism hasn't come from the GOP, though. It's come from immigration advocates. One activist, Arturo Carmona, said a few weeks ago, "for Obama, politics come before Latino lives."

But these critiques both overstate Obama's errors and ignore his successes. Altogether, his recent immigration record is much stronger than it appears.

Hispanics are particularly angry with the president for delaying his executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections. He had originally promised such an action would come at the end of the summer. It’s clear the delay is a political decision, made to spare struggling Democratic senatorial candidates running in states where conservative voters would be outraged. "When your supposed friends break multiple promises, it feels really shitty,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “That's just a basic human reaction.” Obama certainly should have handled this much better. If there was a chance he’d back away from his promise because of the political consequences of his action, he shouldn’t have made it last spring. And there is undoubtedly a human cost to this delay: some undocumented immigrants will be deported who wouldn’t have been otherwise.

Still, the apoplectic response his announcement provoked from immigration activists may overstate the true consequences of the delay. Based on the 2013 pace of deportations, 60,600 undocumented immigrants would be deported between September 5 (when Obama announced the delay) and election day. That’s a lot, but we can’t know how many would have qualified for deferred action until Obama reveals the details of his executive action. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security is focusing its resources on deporting high-priority undocumented immigrants like those with criminal records. Immigration activists don’t believe that DHS is actually following through on those priorities, but 59 percent of deportations in 2013 had a criminal record.1 In other words, the majority of those 60,600 undocumented immigrants would have been deported even if Obama did not delay his executive action.

Of course, the biggest immigration issue that Obama faced over the summer was the so-called border crisis. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors—largely from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—were crossing the Southwest border, seemingly increasing every month: 4,800 in February, 7,700 in April, and more than 10,000 in June. A 2008 anti-trafficking law signed by President Bush required that all these kids receive a hearing before an immigration court judge. This clogged up the court system with kids having to wait months or even years before that day came. To make matters worse, the Department of Homeland Security quickly depleted its resources trying to house and feed these kids.

This crisis peaked in late July, just before the August recess, and Congress scrambled to address it. Republicans blamed the surge in minors on the president’s 2012 executive action on immigration. In response, the House GOP passed legislation that repealed that executive action, tweaked the 2009 law to speed up deportation proceedings, and provided $694 million in additional funds for federal agencies.

Obama and Democrats, on the other hand, blamed violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala for the crisis and rejected the Republicans’ solution. Instead, the president sought $3.7 billion to help house and feed the kids, to hire more immigration court judges and to increase border security. At the same time, the Obama administration created a major messaging campaign to inform Central American kids that they would not be allowed to stay in the U.S. if they crossed the border. Vice President Joe Biden travelled to the region as well.

In the end, Republicans rejected the administration’s proposal and Congress went to recess without agreeing on a solution. When they returned in September, though, the border crisis was no longer a topic of conversation. In fact, it disappeared from the agenda altogether. That’s because DHS released new data showing that just 5,500 unaccompanied minors crossed the border in July, down nearly 50 percent from June. For whatever reason—possibly Obama’s messaging campaign, the weather or some unknown factor—the crisis disappeared. The numbers continued to fall in August—and it didn’t require undoing the 2012 executive action.

The administration isn’t declaring victory though. As the weather cools down, those numbers could increase again. On Wednesday, the White House announced that it would allow minors with relatives living legally in the U.S. to apply for refugee status directly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. As Vox’s Dara Lind points out, few of those kids will actually receive that status. But it could deter them from making the trip North. “Even though the refugee slots are relatively few, in country processing could also serve as an important educational tool deterring children from making the long and treacherous journey through Mexico to the U.S,” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer in Cleveland with David Wolfe Leopold and Associates.

The immigration courts are still backlogged, but officials have expedited cases for those who have recently crossed the border. On Thursday, the administration announced that it was providing $9 million to the migrant kids to pay for legal help. That's critically important to ensure they receive a fair hearing. Even so, the immigration system could certainly use more resources, but that’s unlikely to be approved by the Republican-controlled House. For now, Obama is left with the tools at his disposal: the bully pulpit to deter immigrants from making the trip north and the ability to block misguided GOP legislation. Despite the constant criticism, he’s used them well. (Senate Democrats deserve praise, too.)

It’s easy to look at the border crisis and the delay of Obama’s executive action and conclude that Obama’s recent immigration record is a disaster. But Obama has navigated a complicated crisis that had no clear solution while Republicans used it for political gain. That’s not an easy task. When he speaks Thursday night, he deserves a round of applause for it.

  1. Immigration activists aren’t crazy to disbelieve the Obama administration on this. The administration made similar comments in previous years as well. Some of them are also wary that some those criminal records reflect relatively minor violations. Hispanics simply don’t trust the White House anymore. But the administration is now actually enforcing the priorities.