Obama Boxes in Romney on Immigration

With all the problems President Obama  has had lately, he finally created some good news for himself late last week at Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s expense.

In the Rose Garden last Friday, the president announced a change in how his administration would enforce immigration laws.

While the DREAM Act remains stalled in Congress, the president said the Department of Homeland Security would suspend deportations of up to 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants:

Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.…This is not amnesty, this is not immunity.  This is not a path to citizenship.  It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure….

It’s also a big change in policy for an administration that had deported over a million immigrants and prided itself on securing the borders. As the president said Friday:

Today, there are fewer illegal crossings than at any time in the past 40 years…and today, deportation of criminals is up 80 percent.

All those deportations  got little credit among anti-immigration forces, but it hurt the president among Hispanics, a rapidly growing group that comprises 15% of the population  and may be decisive in swing states like Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.

Immigration protest in Chicago in 2011. Photo: flickr/presenteorg

In fact, the deportations and lack of progress on the DREAM Act—which does some of the same things as the president’s order—had soured many Latinos on the president, threatening to suppress turnout.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney survived the Republican primaries in part by taking the hardest line of all the major candidates, even calling for illegal immigrants to “self-deport.”

That has driven down his poll ratings among Hispanics, who as of June 8th supported the president by 66%-23%. As Mr. Game Change himself, John Heilemann of New York magazine, pointed out, Romney cannot win the election with margins like this, especially if Latinos turn out reasonably well in key swing states.

Perhaps that was why the former Massachusetts governor had so much trouble with the subject in a rare broadcast interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Romney accused the president of playing politics with immigration—well, duh—and said as president he “would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution” while granting permanent residency to people who had come here illegally and who had served in the military. But when Schieffer asked him three separate times whether he would repeal the president’s decision, he hemmed and hawed.

The reason he can’t answer is because he’s afraid of alienating either Hispanics (see above) or some of the more bigoted elements among the Tea Party who would call him out as a RINO in a Massachusetts minute if he deviated an inch from his previous stance. That fear of alienating the extremists within his own party may box him in on several issues, and may represent his Achilles’ heel as a candidate.

Meanwhile, a new poll says two-thirds of Americans (and the same percentage of independents) support the president’s move.

And popular talk show host Cristina Saralegui, the “Hispanic Oprah,” is backing President Obama and appearing in his campaign ads. This is the first time she’s endorsed a presidential candidate.

This all points to a no-win situation for Romney. Score this round for the president.

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