WASHINGTON – Hours after the Supreme Court sent his immigration policy into legal limbo, President Barack Obama huddled around a long conference table in the Roosevelt Room with disappointed activists. The president looked out at familiar faces, some teary. It had been a long and tough fight, Obama said, and he had taken some beatings – even from supporters who “whupped on me good.”
He believed his policies would prevail, according to participants in the meeting, but said it was now up to voters and the next president to take up the baton.
And with that, Obama delivered his version of a concession speech on a fight that has frustrated him like few others, roiled the campaign to replace him and is certain to test his successor.
When Obama leaves office in January, immigration overhaul will stand as the most glaring failure in his 7½-year effort to enact a vision of social change. Despite two campaigns full of promises and multiple strategies, Obama imposed only incremental, largely temporary changes on the immigration system. He leaves behind an outdated and overwhelmed system, with some 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
Behind that failure, Obama’s legacy will be judged by a sometimes contradictory mix of policies – some aimed at bringing immigrants “out of the shadows,” others at removing them from the U.S.
He will be remembered for protecting 730,000 young people, a generation of so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Advocates and allies will credit him with embracing a newly aggressive assertion of executive power that, despite the court deadlock and political opposition, remains a legal pathway for the next president. And he will go down as a leader who consistently defended the importance of immigrants in American life, as anti-immigrant sentiment swelled up in parts of the U.S. and abroad.
“Immigration is not something to fear,” Obama said last week. “We don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now or pray like we do, or have a different last name.”
“What makes us Americans,” he said, “is our shared commitment to an ideal that all of us are created equal, all of us have a chance to make of our lives what we will.”
But Obama also will be remembered as a president who prioritized other issues, missing perhaps the best chance to pass sweeping legislation and only reluctantly adjusting his strategy in the face of firm opposition.
And his administration aggressively enforced current laws, deporting more than 2.4 million people. The total is nearly as many as his two predecessors combined.
“His strategy early on was to prove his enforcement bona fides,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, an immigration advocacy group, who once labeled Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”
“He was facing an unprecedented, highly personalized opposition from Congress,” she said. “We fault him, I believe correctly, for failing to recognize soon enough this intransigence by Congress and failing to use his authority sooner.”
Evaluating Obama’s record is a matter of tallying two columns. One is the number of people he protected from removal. The other is the number deported.
The Supreme Court went a long way last week toward tipping the ledger toward the latter. With its 4-4 tie, it thwarted Obama’s last chance to shield up to 4 million people from deportation. The decision left in place an injunction freezing his 2014 executive action, which expanded his protection of Dreamers and temporarily protected some parents of people with legal status.
The deadlock, resulting from a Republican blockade against Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, left the constitutionality of the action unsettled. But it had a significant impact on Obama’s legacy.
“If the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor, he’d probably be remembered as the person who helped to protect half of the undocumented population in the country, which probably would have been a turning point toward reform sooner rather than later,” said Frank Sharry, founder of the immigration reform group America’s Voice. Instead, he said Obama will be most remembered for his administration’s “record number of deportations.”