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Young Immigrants: Impulsive or Obama’s Conscience?

A march to the White House demanding President Barack Obama stop deportations gets underway Saturday. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

President Barack Obama stepped back to give Republicans room to pass immigration reform and in swooped the impatience of youth.

Young immigrants, many not here legally, have ramped up their demand that Obama grab what he can now by using his executive authority to suspend deportations and worry later about winning over Republicans to sweeping reforms.

These young immigrants have been dogging Obama for years and got a taste of victory when, before the November 2012 elections, Obama suspended deportations temporarily for young immigrants. That didn’t make them go away.

They are back for more and are joined by more established groups, including the National Council of La Raza, who are increasingly saying it’s time to shift strategies on immigration reform, after more than a decade of no results on comprehensive legislation.

“He (Obama) decided to make enforcement a big issue. He thought he was going to be able to change Republicans' minds. It hasn’t worked. Republicans hate him … and we still don’t have comprehensive immigration reform,” said Erika Andiola, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition.

This past weekend a coalition that included the young DREAMers marched to a park near the White House. Other rallies and marches took place in other cities in protest of an estimated 2 million deportations during Obama's presidency.

“He (Obama) decided to make enforcement a big issue. He thought he was going to be able to change Republicans' minds. It hasn’t worked. Republicans hate him … and we still don’t have comprehensive immigration reform."

Are these young immigrants the latest voices of conscience for Obama and the country, much like the black youth who sat at whites-only lunch counters or the anti-Vietnam War protestors on college campuses? Or are they impulsive idealists who fail to understand that politics is about give and take and timing?

There was some feeling that the young immigrants were ungrateful when the clash escalated last month. That’s when the president of NCLR called Obama “deporter in chief” and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus considered issuing a resolution demanding the president expand deportation deferrals he authorized for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants here illegally, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“Is DACA nothing?” California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra said at the time. “I would talk to the hundreds of thousands of families who today are not in fear, not having their young man or woman, son or daughter deported as a result of DACA. That’s not nothing.”

It’s an awkward place for Obama to be. He was in their shoes once, demanding divestment from South Africa. As a young community organizer trying to persuade the black community to join with churches, he was told he meant well but was “on the wrong side of the battle,” according to his autobiography “Dreams of My Father.”

“You want everything to happen fast. Like you got something to prove out there,” he quotes a friend telling him in the autobiography.

Now the young people are telling him he’s on the wrong side.

“I’m having a difficult time understanding a president who comes from an organizing background, he knows that access and dealing with the politics of Congress is not really power. Power is in the people,” said Cristina Jimenez, cofounder and managing director of United We Dream Network.

It’s an ironic place for Obama to be. He was in their shoes once. “You want everything to happen fast. Like you got something to prove out there,” he quotes a friend telling him in the autobiography.

Obama is not the first president to be confronted by a youth-led social change movement. He has paid homage to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who headed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and organized the sit-ins at Fisk University. During the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year, Lewis reminded the public how he had to tone down his planned speech at the behest of elder leaders in the movement.

“I think there’s something about aging. There’s a natural feature of realizing that historical change does take time. It’s important for young people in movements to remind us there is not limitless time,” said Connie Flanagan, a professor in the school of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin.

The people surrounding him are not the young people about to get deported, so the youth activists serve to remind him of his values, Flanagan said. "When he gets reminded of his values, he steps up," she said.

Marshall Ganz, a Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer and experienced community organizer, said Obama, like others in office, is very much in need of the pressure coming from the young immigrants.

He cites a quote attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt who, when told there was a need for labor laws, told the groups “go make me do it.”

“The March on Washington was because (then President John F.) Kennedy was not moving fast,” said Ganz, who was a SNCC organizer and joined Cesar Chavez’s organizing movement. Not moving fast is “sort of built into the dynamics of our politics.”

“Young people come of age with a critical eye and hopeful hearts,” Ganz said.

What has made this group of youth unique is that many of them lack legal status in the U.S. They have announced their non-legal status and adopted the mantra “undocumented and unafraid.” Their courage has brought them trust and respect in the immigrant community. Of course, blacks in America had citizenship, but were legally deprived of their rights as citizens.

The youth have shown no allegiance to either party. They have protested politicians on both sides of the aisle and put relief from deportation above partisan politics.

Their current focus on Obama does not leave Republicans without consequence for their inaction or delay, said Jimenez. The young immigrants have been doing a lot of work in the community and on social media to let Latinos and immigrants know “who is responsible for having immigration reform stalled,” and the community knows it, she said.

The youth are going to make sure Republicans feel the political consequences, added Jimenez, and “if I was the Republican Party, I’d also be thinking of the White House.”

Advocates who have met with Obama suggest the window may be closing, that the GOP has until the end of June before Obama possibly acts.

In a way, the young immigrants' agitation was predetermined by growing up straddling the worlds of their American peers as well as their immigrant parents without legal status, said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

They grew up in a country with ideals of inclusion and belonging as well as exclusion, marginalization and deportations, he said.

“They’ve internalized these ideals of democracy, kind of American-grown and raised ideas on what it means to participate,” Gonzales said. “There’s been an argument they are fighting for the rights of their community,but they also are fighting to hang on to a baseline of rights they’ve had since childhood.”