WASHINGTON-President Obama's sudden policy shift on immigration, occurring just months before he faces voters in the November election, has upped the ante in the fight to secure the growing Hispanic voting block.
As Republicans characterize Obama's move as a blatant political outreach, the president's decision to give respite to some of the nation's illegal immigrants could increase pressure on White House challenger Mitt Romney to counter by tapping a Hispanic lawmaker as his running mate.
"It's disappointing that President Obama, even though he had a Democratic Congress for the first two years of [his] administration, promised the country and particularly the Hispanic community that he would enact comprehensive immigration reform," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a surrogate for Romney, during an appearance Monday on CNN. "He didn't do it, and now at the 11th hour he comes up with this executive order."
On Friday, Obama said his administration would no longer deport some illegal immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. This move, dubbed election-year amnesty by Republicans, affects illegal immigrants between the ages of 16 and 29 who have no criminal record and who have either been students or have served in the military. This population, roughly about 1.4 million of the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants now in the country, will be allowed to avoid deportation by applying for a two-year deferral.
The move gives immigration policy an even bigger role in the campaign, joining already hot-button topics like the economy and healthcare. (See "Latin persuasion," WORLD, May 19.) Obama's use of an executive order to implement a policy long sought by Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill also continues the president's aggressive bypassing of Congress, which began in earnest last fall with his unveiling of a "We Can't Wait" campaign. (See "Do it my way," WORLD, Jan. 14.)
"President Obama's subversion of constitutional lawmaking procedures is entirely unacceptable," said Rep. Tom Price, a Republican from Georgia. "This administration has yet again demonstrated that it will rule by executive fiat instead of working with Congress."
Romney, during a Sunday appearance on CBS's Face the Nation, questioned the timing of Obama's policy shift: "If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first three-and-a-half years, not in his last few months."
Romney said he would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution for the children of those who have come here illegally. But he did not talk about how the White House's move may impact his selection of a vice presidential candidate.
Recent history shows that Romney will need Hispanic support to oust Obama. The Hispanic population, now at 50 million, makes up 16 percent of the U.S. population, and has jumped by at least 50 percent over the last decade in 37 states, making it the fastest growing segment of the electorate. George W. Bush received between 37 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning the 2004 presidential election. But John McCain barely earned 31 percent four years later in his loss to Obama.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who is often described as a possible running mate for Romney, said Obama's immigration policy change by executive order is a temporary answer to a problem needing a permanent solution. Often new presidents undo the executive orders of the previous president.
"There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own, but there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future," Rubio said. "By once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short-term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term one."