On Immigration, Biden Attempts to Replicate a Powerful Obama Moment

In the summer before a tough re-election contest in 2012, President Barack Obama was losing support from Latino voters who called him “deporter in chief.” Then he signed a sweeping executive order to shield hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Luis V. Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat and former congressman, recalled that in his district in the Chicago area, some Latinos celebrated the moment in the streets. “Everywhere I went, here’s what people said — ‘Now we’ll vote for him,’” he said. “I swear to God. That is how important that was for him politically.”

Twelve years later, President Biden appeared to be trying to replicate that move.

Mr. Biden on Tuesday drew cheers and several standing ovations from a room of about 200 people, including congressional Democrats and immigrant-rights leaders from across the country, as he unveiled an order expanding legal protections for undocumented spouses of American citizens. He evoked Mr. Obama’s powerful moment by announcing it at an event commemorating the anniversary of the former president’s 2012 executive action for young immigrants, framing his proposal as a way to keep families together.

“I refuse to believe that to protect our border we have to walk away from being an American,” he said, adding that the nation had been revitalized for generations by immigrants. “We can both secure the border and provide legal pathways for families.”

News of Mr. Biden’s order drew widespread praise even before it was announced, including from Latino and immigrant rights advocates and from some former critics who had just weeks ago denounced him as “Border Shutdown” Biden.

“This is the Biden administration listening to young people, to voters of color who have been demanding a pro-immigrant message on immigration,” said Bruna Bouhid-Sollod, senior political director of the immigrant rights group United We Dream Action. “For those of us who are directly impacted, this has always been about keeping families together.”

But underneath the celebration lies considerable uncertainty. It remains unclear what this decision will mean for Mr. Biden’s 2024 presidential campaign and whether he will be able to reset the narrative on an issue that has so far been dominated by his Republican rival, Donald J. Trump.

Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden is contending with a much different landscape on immigration.

The president is facing pressure from members of his own party, as well as Hispanic voters, many of whom want to see both tougher enforcement and better pathways to citizenship. Republicans have been ratcheting up their rhetoric as they have moved in lock step to blame Mr. Biden for what they describe as the chaos at the border. Even before Mr. Biden unveiled his executive action, Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration policies, called it “amnesty for illegal aliens during a border invasion.”

Back in 2012, under pressure from a national immigrant rights movement, Mr. Obama signed his executive action as his administration rushed to pre-empt a similar legislative proposal from Senator Marco Rubio, then a young and rising Republican star from Florida.

Mr. Rubio was tacking to the left of his party to provide work authorizations for Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. In a sign of how much the political waters have shifted, Mr. Rubio has now fallen in line behind Mr. Trump as he seeks to become his pick for running mate.

Mr. Biden has been criticized by Latino leaders, immigrant rights activists and progressives as playing too much into far-right demands. Democratic leaders and strategists said it was too early to say how much his latest action would energize Democrats, particularly after the president’s executive order this month that drastically curbed asylum for migrants when border crossings surge.

Chris Newman, a longtime immigrant rights leader, said Mr. Biden’s order could still be a watershed moment. The president, he said, would need to deliver a message powerful enough to galvanize public opinion in favor of the policy, which could help him on the campaign trail and in its defense, as it is likely to be challenged in court.

“The performance is as important as the politics and the policy,” said Mr. Newman, the legal director and general counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a labor organization based in Los Angeles. It will also depend, he argued, on Mr. Biden being able to deliver on other forms of relief for other undocumented immigrant groups.

Mr. Obama’s executive action created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. It provides work and study permits for undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, if they pass criminal background checks and meet certain requirements. Its impact was soon felt across the country. But that initiative — which at its height covered some 800,0000 immigrants — is still in limbo in the courts, and new applicants can no longer sign up.

Mr. Biden’s order protecting undocumented spouses is expected to benefit roughly 500,000 people.

Mr. Biden’s supporters and allies say the president has been navigating the thorny issue of immigration throughout much of his career. In 2020, Mr. Biden, who served as Mr. Obama’s vice president, had to straddle a fine line between invoking Mr. Obama’s legacy on health care and the economy, while distancing himself from the huge spike in deportations under the Obama administration.

Mr. Biden helped negotiate the Dream Act, which sought a pathway to citizenship for people brought into the country illegally as children, when it came closest to passing Congress in 2010. Three years later, he worked with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to push comprehensive immigration reform legislation through the Senate, though that effort was ultimately stalled by far-right Republicans who called it “amnesty.”

“He has been in the middle of all of this since then,” said Héctor Sánchez Barba, president of the Latino rights group Mi Familia Vota, adding that the president was at times at Mr. Obama’s side in conversations over DACA.

In recent months, Mr. Biden has sought to flip the narrative on Republicans, with campaign ads, a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border and a push for bipartisan legislation, which Republicans have twice blocked. Promoting one of those Senate proposals at a dinner with South Carolina Democrats in January, Mr. Biden suggested he was serious about enforcement, saying, “If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.”

On Tuesday, the Biden administration pushed back on the notion that the latest executive order was meant to offset the last one, and campaign officials and allies previewed their new message on immigration moving forward: Mr. Biden is working to keep families together, while Mr. Trump has ripped them apart. The president’s event celebrating the Obama administration’s immigration milestone came just days after he and Mr. Obama shared a stage at a Los Angeles fund-raiser, embracing and joking with one another.

In the White House briefing earlier in the day, Mr. Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre linked their legacies. “There is a history, if you will, about the president wanting to protect American families, wanting to protect American citizens — and this is what you see in this announcement,” she said.

Immigration and the southern border are particularly central concerns for Republican and independent voters in the 2024 presidential campaign. But some Democratic pollsters and strategists have warned that it might be too late to sway those voters who say Mr. Trump is better at handling immigration than Mr. Biden.

Still, in one sense, Mr. Biden’s most recent action to protect undocumented spouses could be a game changer. The American Business Immigration Coalition, which represents hundreds of companies and supports Mr. Biden’s order, has predicted that the latest policy could help Mr. Biden in battleground swing states. In Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, an estimated total of more than 300,000 voters live in “mixed status” households, or homes with at least one undocumented person.

Mr. Gutiérrez, the former Illinois congressman, said polls were not accounting for what he called the “X-factor” of these recent actions — how fast word of mouth might spread among mixed-status Mexican American and Central American families who would benefit.

“This will bring a lot of joy, a lot of happiness, and the best thing it is going to do is bring hope,” he said.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.

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