President Barack Obama reversed course on Saturday and delayed taking executive action on immigration reform until after November congressional elections, bowing to concerns it could cost his fellow Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
The decision was an about-face for the president, who promised in a high-profile Rose Garden appearance in June to announce unilateral measures by the end of summer if Congress did not enact immigration reform legislation.
A White House official cited partisan politics as the main reason for the delay.
"The reality the president has had to weigh is that we're in the midst of the political season," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"And because of the Republicans' extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections," the official said.
Obama will take action on immigration before the end of the year, the official said.
The delay drew immediate criticism from immigration reform advocates who considered it a betrayal of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and accused the president of putting politics first.
"Today the president and the Senate Democrats have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants and Latinos are simply viewed as political pawns," said the PICO immigration reform group.
"To wait nine more weeks means that I must again look my mother in the eye and see the fear she has about living under the threat of deportation every day," said Cristina
Jiménez, director of United We Dream, an advocacy group. "But Dreamers will not soon forget the president and Democrats’s latest failure and their attempts to fool the Latino community, and we remain resolute in fighting for justice for our families."
Frank Sharry, director of America's Voice, slammed Obama for the delay.
"We advocates didn’t make the reform promise; we just made the mistake of believing it," Sharry told The Hill. "The President and Senate Democrats have chosen politics over people; the status quo over solving real problems."
"It is hard to believe this litany of high expectations and broken promises will be mended by the end of the year," he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a tight midterm race himself, called the decision cynical.
"He's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections," McConnell said in a statement.
Republicans, who already control the House of Representatives, have seized on immigration to attack vulnerable Democratic senators.
In New Hampshire, the issue has helped Republican Scott Brown erode the lead in opinion polls of Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, upending White House calculations earlier this summer that immigration would not play a major role in the elections.
Other Democratic candidates in tough Senate races asked the White House to delay. Republicans need six seats to gain control of the chamber — a win that would badly undermine Obama for the remainder of his second term.
Obama was circumspect about the timing of his announcement on executive action when asked about it a week ago during a news conference, and advocates could see the writing on the wall.
"But I think overall the feeling is going to be they've been sucker-punched, because the timetable for the end of the summer had been really clear," said Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a group that is close to the White House.
A surge of nearly 63,000 children crossing the border from Central America to the United States in the past year has fueled debate over immigration.
Obama will need to rebuild confidence with immigrant communities, Kelley said in an interview, which may require a more aggressive package of executive actions when it finally does arrive.
"If you expect a guy to ask you to marry him, and then he keeps putting off the proposal, you're going to want a two-carat ring instead of a one-carat ring," Kelley said.
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