There was nothing mixed or muddled about the reaction.
Among undocumented immigrants and activists working on their behalf, President Obama’s decision to wait until after November’s elections to make promised changes to immigration policy provoked raw anger.
One group called the president’s decision “an affront” to migrant families. Another said Obama had “prioritized politics over reform.”
An immigration lawyer said her clients had been “sold out,” and one longtime activist burst into tears when asked how the decision might affect his friends and family.
“The announcement is pretty shameful and once again demonstrates that for Obama, politics comes before Latino lives,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a Los Angeles-based Latino advocacy group. He said Obama had “raised the hopes of millions of Latinos across the country by promoting anticipation for an executive action, only to smash them for perceived political gain.”
Frank Sharry, the founder of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy organization that has worked closely with the White House on the issue, warned that Democrats “can expect a pretty strong reaction from immigrants and their allies.”
“There’s a sense that whenever this community gets close to finally getting some relief — rather than more fear and more deportations and more detentions — that we get sent to the back of the bus,” Sharry said. “It’s never convenient to help out Latinos.”
During a campaign appearance Saturday in Chicago, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) — a longtime vocal advocate for reform — said Obama had declined to take action before the elections “because not all Democrats stood up and spoke and asked the president of the United States to act swiftly, to act boldly, and act generously.”
The response from Gutierrez and other activists across the country stood in contrast to other Democratic lawmakers and party operatives in Washington who said they understood that Obama was holding off for fear of upending Democratic chances of maintaining control of the Senate.
The activists said their anger was justified, especially since Obama has been promising for more than six years to take significant action on immigration. As a candidate in 2008, he vowed to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office. Just months after moving into the White House, Obama shifted focus instead to health-care reform, a decision that infuriated Latino Democratic lawmakers and sparked distrust among longer-serving members that lingers today.
Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a group seeking to register Latino voters in six states, said Obama’s decision should help persuade thousands of voters in migrant communities to participate, but not out of enthusiasm for the president. “How many times have we told politicians the stories of our people? It’s not about stories or personal suffering — they don’t understand that,” he said. “They understand voting. And we need to elect people who will be supportive.”
Whether Latinos and immigration advocacy groups are in a position to punish Democrats at the polls this November remains an open question.
In 2012, national exit polls showed that 10 percent of the electorate was Hispanic, up from 8 percent in 2004. In the presidential election, 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, compared with 27 percent who chose Republican Mitt Romney.
But the potential Latino influence is less clear this year because with the exception of Colorado, most of the competitive congressional races are in states or districts with smaller Latino populations.
Some activists also faulted Obama for not pushing more aggressively in 2010 for Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would have provided opportunities for young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents to seek citizenship. In a late December vote, the Senate fell five votes short of advancing the measure, just moments before senators voted to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned gay men and lesbians from serving in uniform. At the time, many Latino activists privately grumbled that Obama was advancing the interests of the gay community — which donates millions of dollars to Democrats — over Latinos, who had turned out in record numbers to vote for Obama.
The frustration was perhaps best conveyed Saturday by Astrid Silva, 26, an immigration activist from Las Vegas who said the delay does not acknowledge the harm being inflicted on undocumented families every day.
The child of undocumented Mexican immigrants, Silva is one of hundreds of thousands of “dreamers” who benefited from Obama’s decision in 2012 to defer their deportations. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) frequently invokes Silva’s struggles when he discusses immigration. He invited her to watch from the Senate gallery last year as senators approved a bipartisan immigration bill.
On Saturday, Silva described Obama’s move as “a power play” and said Reid and other lawmakers “don’t see what we’re seeing every day. They don’t see the families being torn apart. It’s been said before that in that marble bubble in D.C., they don’t know what it’s like.”
Silva had just come from a doctor’s appointment with her father, who was detained by immigration authorities in 2011 but had his deportation deferred until January, when he is scheduled to be sent back to Mexico.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be around for me to take him to the doctor again next year,” she said. “And how many people are going through this right now, whose parents are scheduled to be deported this week or next week?”
Erika Andiola has similar concerns. Three weeks ago in Phoenix, she and other activists met with dozens of undocumented immigrants to deliver what they thought was good news: Obama is on the verge of making big changes to immigration policy. He might extend temporary protections to millions of immigrants. Get your documents in order because if you qualify, you’ll want to be ready.
But Andiola, who runs the Dream Action Coalition, had to shift tactics Saturday after being jolted out of bed by an early morning text with news of Obama’s decision to delay action.
“Now I have to text everybody that I met with and tell them that this is not going to happen until perhaps after the election,” she said. “Who knows — I don’t even know if we should trust what he’s saying.”