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Obama keeps trying to explain immigration reform instead of actually doing it

Yesterday, the Obama administration announced that it was delaying — for the second time — its long-anticipated executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections in November.

So why the delay? This morning, on Meet the Press, Obama said that he needed more time to explain to the American public why such changes were necessary:

But here's one big problem with this line. "Explaining" immigration reform has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration's immigration strategy since 2009. The administration has actually designed its policy around explaining its goals to the public. And it hasn't worked yet.

Here are four different times that the Obama administration has tried to get a group of people on board with its immigration priorities and failed completely.

2009-2011: The Obama administration tries to explain  that they're tough on enforcing immigration law

On the campaign trail, Obama promised Latinos he'd push for comprehensive immigration reform within a year of getting into office. In practice, the administration was quickly distracted.

Instead, Obama's Department of Homeland Security tried to lay the groundwork for future Congressional reform. The administration figured that if it explained that the border was secure and immigration laws were being strictly enforced, Republicans and swing voters would feel more comfortable supporting immigration reform in Congress. (Adam Serwer laid out this dynamic in an essay for the American Prospect in 2010.)

Part of this strategy was making the case to the public that the administration took immigration enforcement seriously. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who had immigration-enforcement cred as a former governor of a border state, made a series of speeches to claim that the border was more secure than ever.

But the other part of the strategy was to design immigration enforcement policy so that it would help the administration make that case to the public. The federal government deported record numbers of immigrants for each of Obama's first five years in office — about 400,000 a year.

ICE secure communities press conference

Obama administration officials touting Secure Communities, an immigration enforcement program.

Did it work? Neither Republicans nor swing voters were persuaded that the administration was being tough enough in immigration enforcement. Republicans rallied around the state of Arizona in 2010, when it passed a law designed to get unauthorized immigrants to leave the state — under the logic that the federal government had failed to secure the border and now it was the states' turn to try. Voters supported both comprehensive immigration reform and the Arizona law — because they felt nothing was being done on immigration, and that action of any kind was better than nothing.

And instead of Republicans in Congress getting on board with broader reform, Republicans who previously supported reform started running away. When the DREAM Act, a bill to give legal status to unauthorized immigrants who'd arrived in the US as children, came up in Congress in 2010, several Republicans in both chambers who had voted for the bill in past years walked away — and the bill narrowly failed to hit the 60-vote threshhold for cloture in the Senate.

2011-12: The administration tries to explain to Latinos that it's not deporting DREAMers

After the failure of the DREAM Act in Congress, immigration advocates, led by the DREAMers (young people who would have qualified for legal status under the DREAM Act), started pressuring President Obama to take executive action to protect some immigrants from deportation. The administration's response was, again, to try to explain to them that it was already doing all that it could.

First of all, Obama claimed that thanks to the Department of Homeland Security's policy of "prosecutorial discretion" — making some unauthorized immigrants "high priorities" for deportation, and others "low priorities" — DREAMers already weren't getting deported. "We aren't going around rounding up students," Obama told Univisión anchor Jorge Ramos in 2011.

Second of all, Obama told advocates, there wasn't anything more he could legally do to make sure that DREAMers were protected from deportation. He accused advocates of asking him to wave a magic wand to stop deportations and said the Constitution didn't allow him to do that.

DREAMer protest with sunglasses Scott Olson/Getty Images

DREAMers wore graduation gowns to immigration protests.

Did it work? The problem was that "prosecutorial discretion" wasn't actually being implemented on the ground — and the immigrant community knew that, because they were seeing the evidence. The week after Obama made that statement, a young woman confronted him at a town hall about education and held up her deportation order. Advocates continued to put pressure on Obama and the Department of Homeland Security to find an effective way to protect DREAMers from deportation.

And the advocates won. In June 2012, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which would allow DREAMers to apply for two years of protection from deportation, as well as work permits.

2013-2014: The administration tries to explain that it can't expand its executive action to other immigrants

In Obama's first term, the legislative failure of the DREAM Act gave rise to pressure for executive action instead. That's the same arc that comprehensive immigration reform followed in his second term.

As it became clear toward the end of 2013 that an immigration bill probably wasn't going to pass Congress anytime soon, advocates began to pivot back to the administration — asking Obama to protect immigrant parents and workers, just like he'd protected immigrant students with DACA.

The administration took the same line it took in 2011: that they were already doing everything they could do. DACA was legal, they said, but it wouldn't be legal for them to expand the program to other immigrants, like parents of US citizens.

Protesters with father signs

Immigration protesters call for parents to be protected from deportation.

Did it work? Immigration advocates had heard this argument already, and they'd gotten the administration to back down. So they weren't terribly persuaded by the explanation this time. And again, it was the advocates who won: the president announced in March 2014 that he would be reviewing deportation policy to try to make it more humane. (That's the review that was delayed — for the second time — in September.)

2014: The administration tries to explain to the public that the child and family migrant crisis is under control

In spring 2014, the continued influx of Central American children and families into the Rio Grande Valley became a crisis that captured the attention of the nation. The immigration system just wasn't equipped to handle the increase, and the administration was clearly caught unprepared. Anti-immigration pundits warned about an "invasion" of gang members, and Republicans, seizing on rumors that smugglers were telling families that they'd get "permisos" in the United States, said that the administration's promises of "amnesty" had caused the crisis.

The Obama administration spent the summer trying to prove to the public that it was acting aggressively to stop children and families from coming.

It "surged" immigration resources from the interior of the country to the Rio Grande Valley to process immigrants through the deportation system as quickly as possible. It built temporary detention facilities to house migrant families — where, reports indicate, government officials told detainees that they would all be deported, even though many of them were trying to claim asylum in the US. And in speech after speech, President Obama tried to speak directly to Central American families and tell them not to come to the US — hoping to explain to the American public that the administration wanted to stem the flow.

Did it work? Not at all — in fact, that failure is exactly what Obama was talking about on Meet the Press. The panic over migrant children and families damaged public support for any sort of relief for unauthorized immigrants, even those who'd lived in the US for a long time.

President Obama is now saying that this was a significant enough shift in public opinion that it's worth putting executive action on hold to address it — but the administration was trying to address the shift in public opinion all summer, and to no avail.

Politicians can't successfully explain anything to the public if the public is already convinced it knows what's going on. And that's been the case on immigration for some time. Progressives and immigration advocates don't believe that the administration has enough control over federal agents that it can tell them which immigrants not to deport — that's why they've pushed for programs like DACA, in which immigrants can apply directly for protection. Republicans and conservatives flatly don't believe that the Obama administration has any interest in enforcing immigration laws.

Either the administration is finally, after five years of failure, going to make a breakthrough in explaining its immigration priorities to advocates and the American public, or this delay isn't going to improve the administration's standing with anybody. The latter seems a lot more likely.

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