Analysis: Obama’s Immigration Maneuver

June 20, 2012, noon

I wel­come Obama’s de­cision on im­mig­ra­tion. Pur­su­ing and de­port­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants who were brought to this coun­try as chil­dren is in­hu­mane. If the US stands for something, it should nev­er sink so low.

Out and out law­less­ness, Charles Krau­tham­mer called the de­cision. Amer­ica is sup­posed to be a na­tion of laws. Yes, when it chooses to be. A settled, in­tel­li­gent and in­dis­put­ably le­git­im­ate im­mig­ra­tion policy is needed. But there’s no sign of it. In the mean­time, re­sort­ing to a leg­al man­euver that lets the ad­min­is­tra­tion leave a cruel law un­en­forced is the best that can be done, and in my view much the less­er evil.

It would be nice to call it a brave de­cision, but the tim­ing tem­pers one’s en­thu­si­asm. What took him so long? Oh yes, there’s an elec­tion com­ing up, and the Latino vote could be pivotal. Shame about all those earli­er de­port­a­tions, the ones the ad­min­is­tra­tion was boast­ing about un­til re­cently. The de­cision looks na­kedly polit­ic­al. You can hardly claim to be stand­ing on prin­ciple when you’re driv­en en­tirely by tac­tic­al cal­cu­la­tion.

Since it’s the right de­cision I hope it pays off. A new Bloomberg poll sug­gests it might. But per­haps the ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing more of a chance than it knows. Sean Trende thinks the elect­or­al cal­cu­la­tion may back­fire for three main reas­ons. Lati­nos aren’t con­cen­trated in im­port­ant swing states. (Flor­ida? Lati­nos in Flor­ida don’t vote like Lati­nos else­where.) White work­ing-class voters are likely to be of­fen­ded by the de­cision. And Lati­nos might not care about im­mig­ra­tion policy quite as much as Demo­crats are apt to think.

[J]ust as there’s a ceil­ing on the Re­pub­lic­an share of this vote, there’s prob­ably something of a floor. (Harry En­ten provides some good ana­lys­is here.) 

I’d just add that in 2008, only 69 per­cent of Latino voters de­scribed il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion as “very” or “ex­tremely” im­port­ant to them in exit polls. Of these, nearly one-third voted Re­pub­lic­an, sug­gest­ing that a near-ma­jor­ity of Lati­nos either thought that il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion wasn’t an im­port­ant is­sue, or thought it was and voted Re­pub­lic­an any­way…

In short, it’s not really clear what Obama’s tack on im­mig­ra­tion really ac­com­plishes, polit­ic­ally speak­ing. It prob­ably will res­ult in min­im­al gains among Latino voters, in states with only a few elect­or­al votes. But what it costs him could eas­ily off­set those gains, and then some. 

Is it pos­sible Obama did the right thing, even sus­pect­ing it might cost him in elect­or­al terms? These days, sad to say, that’s hard to be­lieve.

Clive Crook is a seni­or ed­it­or of The At­lantic and a colum­nist for Bloomberg View. He was the Wash­ing­ton colum­nist for the Fin­an­cial Times, and be­fore that worked at The Eco­nom­ist for more than 20 years, in­clud­ing 11 years as deputy ed­it­or. Crook writes about the in­ter­sec­tion of polit­ics and eco­nom­ics.

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