How The Immigrant Rights Movement Got Obama To Save Millions From Deportations

A battle raged among allies, publicly and behind the scenes, to shift focus from a legislative overhaul strategy to making the idea of executive action inevitable. This is how it happened.

President Obama’s executive actions to give legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants have been framed as a president choosing to be confrontational and daring. But the real story is different: Obama was forced to do this.

The path to the executive actions didn’t start in Washington — it started at a rec center in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The president was there, at the Betty Ong Chinese Recreation Center, named for the flight attendant who first told U.S. authorities the country was under attack on 9/11, to deliver a routine speech, pushing Republicans on immigration one last time before Thanksgiving.

As is usual, White House officials invited a range of people to the event, including a number of undocumented immigrants who received temporary legal status under Obama’s 2012 executive action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Ju Hong, a Berkeley graduate and a DACA recipient, was invited to the event — then randomly selected to stand behind Obama in the typically diverse backdrop that accompanies a presidential speech.

And in that moment a nervous Hong decided to interrupt Obama and yell something off-message: The president had the power to stop the deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants.

“Actually, I don’t. And that’s why we’re here,” Obama replied, adding that he could not solve problems in the immigration system on his own.

Almost a year later, the Senate bill he stumped for that day is forgotten. President Obama acted alone. He might not have stopped the deportations of 11.5 million people, but he did dramatically expand the executive power of the presidency, effectively stopping the deportations of nearly five million undocumented immigrants. And the impetus for this action was not in the White House, or on Capitol Hill, or in the media — it wasn’t in Washington, really. The spark behind this action was an unlikely group of activists.

In February, a group of DREAMers, the common term for undocumented youth brought to the country as children, met in a cramped hotel room in Phoenix. They’d had enough.

The month before, Republicans had released immigration “principles” that surprised many activists initially as a good faith effort to address the most difficult aspect of any immigration conversation — what to do with the undocumented immigrants already in the country. But the GOP soon pulled them back, saying Obama couldn’t be trusted to enforce immigration law.

DREAMers comprise a major new element of immigrant activism, and they are not without controversy in the larger immigrant activist movement.

Previous generations of activists have argued the demand for undocumented immigrants must be citizenship or nothing. The DREAMers have staked a different, but incredibly important position: Deportations, they say, are the most important, most damaging issue for undocumented immigrants and their families. Reducing deportations is the paramount issue for DREAMers.

Their network is large. There’s United We Dream, a large national organization with local affiliates, and a handful of young, high-profile activists like Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, the co-founders of the Arizona-based Dream Action Coalition, and Gaby Pacheco, who was instrumental in the fight for DACA in 2012. While they say that they don’t coordinate everything they do, the activists acknowledge that they check in with each other often.

So with the prospects dying for Republican legislation and a real desire to advance the deportation issue, United We Dream gathered many of its top members in Arizona to chart a course for the rest of the year.

And they came to a simple, direct plan: They would focus all of their resources on securing executive action from President Obama.

“The media narrative began to change not too shortly after that,” said UWD’s Lorella Praeli, who often represents the organization at meetings with advocates, Democrats, and the White House.

“Implicitly or explicitly people were pressured to come out for executive action,” she said, referring to Democrats and other advocates who held on to the dream of comprehensive legislation for much longer. “It created this new expectation.”

Praeli, who said she and her colleagues are often referred to as “the DREAM kids,” said sometimes people who have been in Washington, D.C., think they know political strategy best. Their goal, instead, was creating an air of inevitability around executive actions.

“We got a lot of pushback when we pivoted and when we started to push for administrative relief,” she said. “Our moral authority and our power is derived from our unpredictability — people want to control us. We got a lot of pushback publicly and privately, but what we knew from looking at the political strategy is that sooner rather than later we needed to be really firm. It was about creating this inevitability.”

At the same time, activists were also driving a legal argument for Obama acting on his own.

In addition to the National Immigration Law Center, which made the case for executive action in December 2013 and throughout this year, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) took the lead on fighting the national Secure Communities program, a controversial program that finger-printed people and detained them long enough for ICE to come pick them up, facilitating the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The organization also sent a 41-page document to DHS outlining the president’s ability to reduce deportations, in addition to a memo to White House officials on the issue, which foreshadowed both the landscape of pressure and Obama’s eventual actions.

The approach from outside the administration, advancing ideas (the inevitability of executive action) and pushing allies (Democrats) on the issue, was key to the activists’ strategy.

“DREAMers and day laborers are part of this victory,” activist Erika Andiola said. “It’s evidence that sometimes you have to change the status quo in D.C. or else you’re not going to get anything.”

About the time that DREAMers were devising a strategy in Arizona, a much different meeting was taking place in Washington.

This meeting did not involve elected officials or their staff — and it produced one of the biggest, most important moments of the year. At the D.C. offices of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the group’s president, Janet Murguia, walked into a meeting with her immigration policy team and told them that the time had come: She was going to publicly call Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”

The president hates the nickname.

And while Murguia certainly drew his ire by dropping the phrase in her March speech at NCLR’s Capital Awards, activist after activist calls it a turning point in forcing the administration to confront the deportation issue. Because NCLR is such an entrenched, established ally for Democrats on immigration, especially compared to the younger groups, some activists even likened Murguia’s comment to when Walter Cronkite came out against the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon B. Johnson noted the importance of losing an influential leader by saying, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America.”

In an interview with BuzzFeed News this week, Murguia said she went there because of Speaker John Boehner’s “ludicrous” excuse that Republicans were backing away from legislation because Obama couldn’t be trusted to enforce the law. The administration, she noted, was at the same time fast approaching a big number — deporting two million undocumented immigrants.

“It reached a tipping point and I wanted to make it clear that I was speaking for millions of Latinos in this country who were very frustrated and angry,” she said.

Murguia’s remark fell at an interesting time. DREAMers were pressuring Latino lawmakers on Capitol Hill to publicly support executive actions to slow deportations. Activists panned a draft resolution from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who responded with a stronger draft and the promise of a vote.

The response was swift: President Obama convened a meeting with lawmakers on March 14, saying he would order a review of deportation policy by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chief Jeh Johnson. He met with activists the next day.

At the meeting, those who had supported slowing deportations — like Murguia and UWD’s Praeli and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who were seated so close it was difficult for him to open his notebook — were placed farthest from the visibly angry president. Obama lectured the activists about going after him instead of Republicans.

Praeli said Obama wasn’t rude, but he did comment on the short bio of her he had been briefed on, which stated that DREAMers had forced him to do DACA. Obama said he wasn’t forced to do it — he supported it in his own right. He also became angry with Murguia, telling her that calling him the “deporter-in-chief” was something the media would clearly focus on, not her comments that Republicans were to blame.

Murguia disputed an account of the meeting in a recent New Republic profile of Valerie Jarrett that she became emotional during the exchange.

“I was not close to tears, if anything I was equally frustrated and disappointed that they would feel they have to bear down harder with people who are allied in their goal,” she said. “This was a moment where you have allies to have honest and frank conversation. You’re not going to agree on everything all the time. For me, it wasn’t personal. I understand the weight of that comment, I took no joy in the fact that the president might take it personally.”

Obama’s meeting with lawmakers and activists prevented another round of publicity. A source with knowledge of how the year played out among labor organizations said AFL-CIO was set to take an ad out in Politico calling for administrative action, in addition to a strong op-ed on the issue they planned to approach the New York Times with.

Chris Newman, the legal director for National Day Labor Organizing Network, said it all reminded him of a 2009 meeting he had with Obama’s political director at the time, Patrick Gaspard.

Now the ambassador to South Africa, Gaspard told Newman a story he said the president enjoyed sharing, a story told by Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Belafonte. A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights leader, once met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He argued that if the military desegregated, the rest of the country would soon follow. Roosevelt said he agreed with everything Randolph had said and Randolph couldn’t believe how easy it was to convince him. But Roosevelt added a herculean task: “But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it." Gaspard noted immigration advocates would have to fight it out with climate change supporters for the political priority after health care.

It’s a classic Obama story — looking to history, yearning to have an aspirational legacy, but perhaps finding that things are easier said than done.

For Murguia, that March White House visit would be her last until November.

Then came the delays.

After securing the prospect of executive action, activists from most walks of the left presented a fairly united front through the spring.

The tensions remained — longtime Democratic activists pressured the DREAMers. “They were saying don’t go after the president. We were going after Congressional Hispanic Caucus folks and [Xavier] Becerra was a total pain,” one source said, of the highest-ranking Latino in congress. But the tensions largely remained in the background.

On May 28, however, the SEIU joined with a number of Latino, civil rights, and Christian groups to urge the administration delay any plans for executive action. Give Republicans space to act legislatively on immigration, the letter argued.

Publicly, the White House used the letter as cover and delayed the deportation review until the end of summer.

“People felt hopeful, then the delay comes,” NDLON executive director Pablo Alvarado told BuzzFeed News. “In one of the greatest disappointments in the process, some of the organizations on our side asked the president to delay. I hope they understand that they were fully and completely wrong.”

Concurrently, Boehner was asking for a delay from the White House on executive action, in the hopes of legislative action during the summer. But the break in the tentative coalition with SEIU, activists say, was a large part of the delay.

“The biggest impediment to getting admin relief done was SEIU, who were supportive of waiting for Republicans to act,” said the source familiar with the labor side of the immigration fight. “Early on, they issued a request for the president not to act. They started Fast4Families, not once did they call for administrative relief at all. When DREAMers tried to get on their buses to an event with posters that said ‘Don’t deport my dad,’ they were kicked off the bus.

The same source said SEIU supported delaying action because longtime activist Eliseo Medina, — an adamant believer that nothing short of citizenship is acceptable — was making visits on the Hill with former Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, himself a longtime advocate for changes to immigration policy. The pair was getting assurances that Boehner was going to do something legislatively.

For Alvarado, whose organization led the fight against Secure Communities and is no longer invited to White House meetings, these Washington moves were just another example of the invisibility of the stories of undocumented people in political discourse.

“Everyone in this country benefits from the labor migrants provide but the labor is invisible. It doesn’t translate to making people deserving of this relief,” he said.

“Initially, it was the DREAMers, but then it was the adults — the day laborers, the domestic workers, who actually began challenging the status quo,” he continued. “The reason the president has admitted he has been deporting people he shouldn’t be deporting is that people have made the suffering visible. Ultimately, it’s the people that are harmed that have actually made change happen. That has been essential the last year, people figured out the beltway is full of it. A lot of people said this is it — this fight is no longer taking place in the halls of Congress. It starts here in my neighborhood and it begins with police not being able to ask me for my papers.”

By June it was easy to dismiss that anything was going to happen on immigration, with the hits coming in quick succession.

A nascent Republican effort to pass something legislatively, led by Mario Diaz-Balart, Paul Ryan, and others in the House, died in the aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary loss in Virginia, to a little-known candidate who made immigration an issue. Then, the reports started of unaccompanied children from Central America flooding the border — more than 60,000 in less than a year — burdening the already over-burdened immigration system.

Boehner confirmed to Obama that the legislation was dead on a golf course in June.

Days later, the president took to the Rose Garden — without Murguia — to say that he would act by the end of the summer on his own. When exactly that would be was unclear. Maybe it would be July, or August, or possibly September, but no later than Oct. 1 when the president would act. Definitely by the end of the summer.

On Sept. 6, the Obama administration announced it would delay action until after the election. The executive order, they said, would be used by Republicans to politicize the issue — except as BuzzFeed News reported at the time, Obama’s political advisers had made the decision at the behest of vulnerable Senate Democrats, eyeing polling that showed razor thin 1-2% margins in key races.

In a year of delays and disappointment, this one hurt activists the most.

Something else began in earnest during the summer.

Activists became extremely good at confronting politicians — especially Democrats — at major events, in very uncomfortable ways, and flipping the protests into widely shared videos. Activists confronted Steve King (and Sen. Rand Paul, who finished his sandwich quickly, essentially running away from them). They confronted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at multiple events, from an awkward exchange at Tom Harkin’s steak fry in Iowa, to wave after wave of protesters at a campaign rally in Maryland for the candidate for governor there. They interrupted Rep. Joaquin Castro in San Antonio. They interrupted Obama.

This was one of the core political stories of the year. And despite the significant action by the president this week, some key things activists pushed for most vehemently remain undone — the parents of DREAMers were not given temporary legal status, nor were the farm workers. The DREAMers say it isn’t over.

“This is a down payment,” DREAMer leader Andiola said, adding that they would continue to push for protection for more undocumented people like their parents.

“This was a fight that was pretty much started by grassroots folks,” she continued. “At the end of the day, a lot of the people who didn’t believe it, didn’t understand it, a lot of these groups are celebrating now, which is totally fine, because our communities are going to be helped. But what they should understand is they should be listening to the people on the ground — when they did twice, look what happened.”

United We Dream’s Praeli said it can make people uncomfortable when you heckle the president.

“But trying to change the balance of power is never comfortable, it always involves risk, but that is what is true to this movement.”

So how did we get here?

They made him do it.

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