The president's reelection and historical legacy were hanging in the balance. Half measures wouldn't do and hadn't worked.
President Obama had tried to build his credibility by presenting himself as being serious on immigration enforcement in order to get Republican help on passing major immigration reform. But he undercut that effort by putting into place a series of executive actions that narrowed and limited immigration enforcement:
- The administration curtailed workplace enforcement raids.
- The administration exempted any student who came to the United States as a child from any deportation proceedings.
- The president ordered a review of all illegal aliens in deportation proceedings to see if they were eligible for a change to legalized status.
- Administration officials instituted a policy that would make it easier for Americans who are married to illegal immigrants to gain legal residence for their spouses.
- Administration officials instituted a plan that allowed illegal aliens with American family members to adjust their status without laving the country as has been required by law.
- The president announced that henceforth it would be administration policy not to deport any illegal alien who had not been convicted of serious criminal offences.
These efforts not only undercut the president's credibility with Republicans, but also didn't convince activists in the Spanish-speaking-background community that he was doing enough. Worse, it became clear that the activists' view was shared by large segments of the Hispanic community.
A December 2011 Pew Foundation poll report entitled "As Deportations Rise to Record Levels, Most Latinos Oppose Obama's Policy" laid out the basic numbers. Pew reported that, "By a ratio of more than two-to-one (59 percent versus 27 percent), Latinos disapprove of the way the Obama administration is handling deportations of unauthorized immigrants."
This major top-line result, however, came with some interesting caveats. Not all those polled knew that deportations were up under President Obama: "[A] plurality (41 percent) of Latinos say that the Obama administration is deporting more unauthorized immigrants than the Bush administration. Slightly more than a third (36 percent) say the two administrations have deported about the same number of immigrants. And one-in-10 (10 percent) of Latinos say the Obama administration has deported fewer unauthorized immigrants than the Bush administration."
So, almost half the sample did not believe that deportations were higher under the Obama administration.
How those perceptions were distributed were also interesting:
Awareness of the level of deportations is higher among foreign-born Hispanics than among native-born Hispanics — 55 percent versus 25 percent. It is even higher among those who are most at risk of deportation. Seven-in-10 (71 percent) of Hispanic immigrants who are not U.S. citizens and do not have a green card — a group that closely aligns with the unauthorized immigrant population — say the Obama administration has deported more unauthorized immigrants than the Bush administration.
Even more interesting was this finding:
Even among those who disapprove of the way Obama is handling the issue of deportations, a majority support his reelection over either of these two potential Republican challengers. Obama would carry this group by 57 percent to 34 percent against Romney and 61 percent to 31 percent against Perry.
In other words, the president had substantial leeway with this community even among those who disapproved of his enforcement policies.
He could have reminded them of all the steps, noted above, that he had taken. He could have promised, again, to make immigration a top priority in his second term. He could have argued in favor of all the government programs that he had championed, including health care and education, that would have a benefited all those he was trying to convince.
However, relying on those efforts would have entailed risks. And risks to the president's reelection and historical legacy were not something the president or his advisors were willing to do.
They needed the immigration equivalent of astrophysics' Big Bang Theory of the universe's creation to reassure, energize, and consolidate his support in this electorally important ethnic group.
So they opted for a dramatic unambiguous gesture whose nature and implications were unavoidable.
Thus was born Deferral Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).