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Senate Democrats are in retreat on immigration

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)
Rafael Suanes/MCT/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

For most of 2013 and 2014, Democrats thought the politics of immigration were in their favor. Every single Senate Democrat — even conservatives from deep red states like Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted for comprehensive reform just 15 months ago. The GOP appeared to be in disarray, with elites and business interests arguing the party had to moderate on the issue to have any hopes of retaking the White House, but conservatives holding firm to their opposition.

When Speaker John Boehner officially abandoned his repeated promises of House action this year, Democratic leaders believed the GOP's paralysis on the issue would provide a political opening for Obama to act on his own. "The sooner the better. I hope he does it soon," Majority Whip Dick Durbin said in July. Obama invited leaders of immigrant advocacy groups to the White House and told them he was moving ahead with executive action by the end of the summer. "He didn't seem to give a shit" about the politics, Frank Sharry of America's Voice told Major Garrett.

But over the summer, as the child migrant crisis dominated headlines, Democrats began to grow more and more wary on the issue. Opposition from red state Democrats up for reelection, like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, was expected. But, little by little, even Democrats from states Obama won started sounding very reluctant about executive action. Mark Warner of Virginia said he's "troubled," Al Franken of Minnesota said he has "concerns," and independent Angus King reportedly called the White House to argue against any executive action. Even Bill Nelson of Florida, representing a state with a large Hispanic population and not up for reelection until 2018, called for a delay.

When several senators start acting skittish like this, it's usually because they're getting an earful from their constituents. Phone call after phone call pours in to Capitol Hill, overwhelmingly on one side of an issue, and eventually members of Congress feel compelled to take a stand publicly. Warner and Franken, up for reelection this year, are near-certain to have polled what their constituents think about the issue too. If their actions are any indication, they found executive action on immigration to be a very tough sell.

All this led to the White House's announcement that any immigration action would be delayed until after the elections. The administration is still promising that action will still take place before the end of the year. But the behavior of these blue state Democrats is revealing. It shows that the politics of the issue have changed — and that the coalition in support of strong action is breaking and panicking. Even if the Democrats manage to hold the Senate by the skin of their teeth, Obama will still have to deal with this new political reality afterward.

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