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The Immigration Quagmire: How We Got Here

A recap of how the rhetoric on immigration became so heated and the strategy so polarizing.
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With President Barack Obama expected any day to issue an executive order expanding the number of undocumented immigrants able to avoid deportation, the political war of words is only getting more fierce.

Republicans are threatening everything from suing the president to blocking the funding to implement his order and to a lesser extent impeachment and shutting down the government.

Democrats have come to the President’s defense, saying that the Republicans have failed to act on reforming the immigration system and that their time has run out. They are loaded with talking points about how presidents before Obama have acted unilaterally to adjust the immigration system.

“Republican presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower have used executive action to fix immigration,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Univision Tuesday.

Reid’s statements echo points made by a Democratic research group, American Bridge, which circulated a memo to the press pointing out that Ronald Reagan relaxed immigration standards for 200,000 Nicaraguans in 1987 and that President George H.W. Bush delayed the deportation of Chinese and Kuwaiti immigrants.

The road to the impending executive order has been long and full of twists and turns and includes shifting stances by both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, angry political allies and influential electoral politics. Here’s a recap of how the rhetoric became so heated and the strategy so polarizing:

Obama’s First Term

During his first campaign, President Obama promised that immigration reform would be one of his first actions should he be elected. But once in office the realities of the job kicked in and he was forced to deal with downward spiral of the economy. Then the administration’s focus turned to health care reform instead of immigration. That debate left Obama battered and bruised with little time – or political capital – left for immigration.

In August of 2011, nearly three years into his term, with still no action taken on immigration, he announced his first move. He directed the Department of Homeland Security to focus its deportation efforts on those who have committed crimes, a move, legally known as “prosecutorial discretion,” that caused immigrant advocates to cheer.

Less than one year later, just months before his reelection, President Obama announced additional action. He said that he would defer the deportation of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents before the age of 16. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has so far allowed nearly 700 thousand people to work and attend school in the U.S. without the fear of deportations, giving Latinos another reason to celebrate.

Republicans, meanwhile, cried foul, saying that the President used his office to gain favor with Latinos, a key voting bloc. Obama then won reelection with 71 percent support from Latinos.

Obama’s Second Term

Republicans realized they had a Latino problem. Just months after the 2012 election, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate passed – relatively easily – a comprehensive immigration bill that secured the border, updated the legal immigration system and gave eventual relief to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in living the U.S.

The House has not taken up the Senate’s bill and immigration advocates have grown impatient. DREAMERs, many of whom are now able to stay in the country under the DACA program, were able to speak out without the fear of being deported. While they got to stay in the U.S., their parents and family members were still subject to deportation. They started showing up at political rallies around the country and pressuring the Obama administration to use his executive authority to take immigration into his own hands and expand the number of people eligible for deportation relief.

“The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” Obama said.

The issue came to the forefront at one rally in San Francisco in November of 2013 when Berkley graduate student Ju Hong heckled the President, urging him to halt deportations.

The President insisted that he couldn’t. “The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” Obama said in response to Hong. He insisted that any action must go through the legislative process.

That’s similar to a statement he made to Univision earlier in 2013 when he said he is “required to follow the law.”

Immigration advocates didn’t buy it. They pointed to the President’s earlier use of directives using his “prosecutorial discretion” to suspend deportations for some. But immigration advocates continued to wait as the House could still bring up the immigration bill.

In January of 2014, Speaker Boehner indicated that he planned on moving on immigration reform, despite the difficulty of getting it through his conservative, anti-immigration ranks. He publicly unveiled a document that laid out key principles for immigration reform, that included a path to legalization.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said Obama has faced a challenging political dichotomy.

“The left has been frustrated that the president hasn’t acted and the right has been frustrated that the president is going to act,” Noorani said.

As House action continued to not materialize, tensions between immigration advocates and the Obama administration continued to rise as the President continued to deport more people than any president before him. For instance, 410,000 people were deported in 2012 compared to 116,000 in 2001.

The anger bubbled up and exploded last March when the head of the National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguia, called the President the “deporter in chief,” just as the 2 millionth immigrant was about to be deported.

With immigration groups furious and a midterm election months away, the President shifted his stance on unitary action and ordered a review of immigration law and the possibility of presidential action.

In April of 2014, House Speaker John Boehner began publicly saying that immigration reform won’t pass the House, but he blamed the President for breaking the trust of Americans by “ignoring” the law on everything from Obamacare to border security.

“The left has been frustrated that the president hasn’t acted and the right has been frustrated that the president is going to act,” Noorani said.

Further complicating the equation on both sides was the influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who flooded the southern border this past summer. The administration now had to focus on curtailing that crisis as it risked further poisoning any executive action the President could take on immigration and served as further cover for Republicans in the House not to act as they blamed a president who they said is unable – and unwilling – to secure the border.

Members of the President’s team, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, began reviewing possibilities for action without Congress.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors slowed but the midterms were now just a couple of months away. The President once again prolonged any announcement to protect the large numbers of Democratic Senators running for reelection in Republican-leaning states where it threatened to be a potent issue.

The Final Chapter

That didn’t work as Democrats lost nine Senate seats and more than a dozen House seats. And Democrats support by Latinos had dropped to 62 percent, and much lower in some states, including Texas.

After a post-election thumping, the President vows that he’s going to act. Democrats have gotten behind him. In an interview with Univision, Senate Majority Leader Harry Read said he’s “tired of hearing the House of Representatives tell the Senate … ‘give us more time, give us more time.’”

Reid said the President could act “as soon as this week.”

Republicans, once again, are crying foul.

And here we are.