When Cristina Jimenez first told her family that President Obama was looking into ways to shield undocumented immigrants from deportations, she watched as her mother broke down in tears.
“She cried in front of me because she knew what this meant for her life, not to fear that she could lose her husband or her children,” Jimenez recalled.
Like so many immigration advocates who are themselves undocumented or who at one time risked deportation, Jimenez, now the managing director of the pro-immigration advocacy group United We Dream, had deeply personal stakes in President Obama’s vow to revisit deportation policies in favor of keeping families like hers together.
“It would give me sanity that my mom wouldn’t risk deportation,” said Jimenez, who has called the United States home since her family left Ecuador more than 17 years ago. “I live in fear every day that my mom will be deported.”
Advocates however saw their hopes dashed this weekend after President Obama said he would delay any executive action to protect undocumented immigrants until after the midterm elections, adding to the latest in a series of devastating blows for activists pressing for policy changes that would have immediate impacts on potentially millions of people.
“This is deeply disappointing because the delay has real consequences on the lives of people every single day,” said Clarissa Martinez DeCastro, deputy vice president of advocacy for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the country.
With an estimated 70,000 undocumented immigrants who could face deportation between now and after the midterm elections, advocacy groups expressed extreme disappointment that the president would kneel to political pressure after vowing to the public that he would take action by the end of the summer.
“People feel betrayed,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “You see that full continuum expressed, from white hot anger to deep disappointment.”
While the scope of action the president planned to take remains unclear, Obama was expected to offer deportation protections to undocumented immigrants who met certain requirements, including having lived in the U.S. for a set number of years and had close ties to the country. The White House granted similar shields to so-called DREAMers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, more than two years ago, a program that immigration groups hoped would be extended to the families of DREAMers, potentially impacting millions more people.
The delay in executive action comes as Democrats face an uphill battle to hold on to the Senate with incumbents from red-leaning states fighting against a resurgence of politically charged attacks on immigration issues. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America swept up at the border only added fuel to that fire, factoring into the president’s pledge to re-access the country’s deportation policies, a decision made before the number of migrant kids at the border grew into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
“The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem,” Obama acknowledged Sunday on ”Meet the Press.”
In a statement released Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson boasted of a sharp decline in the number of migrant children apprehended at the border, down to the lowest since February 2013. White House Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz meanwhile said the president still plans to take action and pledges to do so “by the end of the year.”
“We’re in a highly politicized environment right now,” she told MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart on Monday. “The situation at the border that happened over this summer has been really heavily exploited by folks on the other side of the aisle.”
DREAMer groups said undocumented families had already begun preparing for the executive action at the deadline that the president himself set for the end of the summer. Advocates held town halls to educate the public. Families had already begun to ready paperwork to become first in line for relief. But with the political climate on the issue sharpening into focus, the delay did not come as completely unexpected.
“We were not that surprised,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition. “At this late in the game, we knew it was going to get tougher and tougher.”
Despite the delay, Vargas said groups remain optimistic that waiting several weeks will open opportunities for the president to take dramatic steps in the scope he is willing to take.
“People are encouraged enough to say there is a silver lining in that the president is going to go bold,” he said.