Was Immigration Delay Obama's Biggest Mistake?

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington, August 1, 2014 Larry Downing/Reuters

After the Republican wave swept away Democratic senators, House members and governors last night, one mistake looms large for President Obama: His decision this summer to delay the executive action he promised the Latino community to ease deportations of illegal immigrants.

First, Obama promised action over the summer. Then he delayed it until after the midterms. After last night's GOP sweep, it's easy now to see Obama backing out of this promise a second time—with likely disastrous consequences for Democrats.

As recently as Tuesday, the Obama administration promised it would move ahead with a new set of executive actions to cut back on deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. But as Vox's Matthew Yglesias writes, it's not hard to see why Obama might delay again.

"Given the GOP takeover of the Senate, I just think it's likely that Democrats will survey the post-election landscape and have a change of heart," Yglesias wrote Wednesday. "[Instead] of the kind of broad action advocates are hoping for, it's likely that we'll end up with something cosmetic like yet another reboot of the secure communities initiative or another effort to better explain and clarify its existing memos about priorities."

The extent of the Republican victory has totally changed the political argument for executive action on immigration. This summer, Obama had the backing of a Democratic Senate which had passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill and an intransigent GOP-controlled House unwilling to take up reform. That gave the president the pretext to denounce Republican obstructionism and move forward on his own without them.

After the electoral catastrophe for the Democrats on Tuesday night, however, that approach is no longer an option. Obama has seen his party roundly defeated in the midterms in what was largely a rebuke by voters for his conduct of the presidency. Republicans will control the Senate come January. It will be hard now to blame Republicans for inaction when it's Obama and the Democrats who lost the elections. Unilateral executive action on immigration would also set up a confrontation with the GOP in Congress—potentially scuttling the bipartisan compromises Obama might want to forge over the course of his final two years.

When Obama postponed action on immigration first time round he may well have hurt the re-election chances of Senate Democrats like Mark Udall in Colorado and Kay Hagan in North Carolina—two states with key Latino populations who felt disaffected with the Democratic Party for not addressing their plight and those of their relations. But the harm to the Democratic Party of continued inaction on immigration reform will be much worse going forward.

The growing Latino population is a critical part of the Democrats' base. Obama overwhelmingly won the Latino vote, 71 percent to Mitt Romney's 27 percent in 2012 with a high enough turnout of Latino voters to ensure he won reelection and helped put fellow Democrats over the top in key swing states. He didn't make that happen by backing down on immigration. Instead, in June 2012, Obama used his executive authority to halt deportations of young undocumented immigrants through the deferred action program.

But while the Latino vote is critical to Democrats, it is in no way guaranteed that they will continue to back the Democrats. If by 2016 Obama has spent eight years in the White House without providing significant relief for Latino families torn apart by deportations, Latinos will be left feeling angry at and betrayed by Democrats and may well take a second look at what the GOP is offering them.

The upside for Democrats if Obama decides to move ahead with a bold plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation is that it would put Republicans on the defensive on the immigration issue going into the presidential election in November 2016. Executive action on immigration in the face of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress would certainly provoke a strong reaction from Republicans—anywhere from simply denouncing the president to impeachment hearings—which may well turn off Latino voters in the process.