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'Back to the drawing board' on immigration? Maybe not

Reform supporters who were ready to celebrate Obama's announcement can take some solace in the fact that the changes are still very much on track.
President Barack Obama participates in an event on immigration reform in San Francisco, Calif. on Nov. 25, 2013.
President Barack Obama participates in an event on immigration reform in San Francisco, Calif. on Nov. 25, 2013.
If President Obama had said a few months ago that he'd unveil new executive actions on immigration by the end of the year, there'd be no controversy. But since he said to expect an announcement by the end of the summer, the news over the weekend caused a considerable stir.
As had been rumored, the White House said early Saturday that Obama will delay his new immigration policy until the midterm elections, effectively pushing back the announcement date from September to November.
Explaining the shift in the political schedule, Obama made no effort to deny what was plainly true: election-year politics influenced the rollout of the administration's policy,

In an exclusive interview with Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, President Barack Obama defended his decision to delay executive action on immigration, saying the summer's surge of unaccompanied children at the Mexican border changed the politics of the issue. "The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem," Obama said in the interview, which will air on Sunday's Meet the Press on NBC. "I want to spend some time, even as we're getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we're doing this, why it's the right thing for the American people, why it's the right thing for the American economy."

There's ample room for debate about the electoral implications, but it's worth noting that there was a rare agreement among partisans on both sides of the aisle. Senate Democrats, many of whom have been begging the president for a delay, have said repeatedly in recent weeks that a pre-election announcement would put them on the defensive, make conditions even more difficult for vulnerable red-state incumbents, and light a fire under the Republican base.
And as it turns out, congressional Republicans believed the exact same thing.

Republicans had been licking their chops for weeks, hoping President Barack Obama would actually carry through on his immigration promise. They had polled the issue in a handful of key races and come to a clear conclusion: If Obama circumvented Congress and acted alone this summer on immigration, conservative and independent voters would finally have an issue to rally behind and give the GOP a clear opportunity to nationalize the midterms in states where the president is deeply unpopular.

We can argue about whether or not the partisans and their assumptions were correct, but there's no doubt that both sides saw similar data and read the landscape the same way. It obviously influenced the West Wing's thinking. Indeed, it's very likely the president and his team concluded that Republican gains following executive actions would create the perception of a connection -- Obama acted on immigration; the GOP won several seats; therefore immigration suffered a public repudiation.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), arguably Congress' most ardent reform advocate, said in response to the news that he intends to "go back to the drawing board." That may not, however, be entirely necessary.
In practical terms, the delay announced Saturday did not signal an overhaul of the White House game plan, at least not on the substance. This is a postponement, not a reevaluation. Opponents of immigration on the right who were looking forward to condemning the president's executive actions can simply put their talking points on ice for a couple of months -- the same announcement is on the way in the fall.
Similarly, reform supporters on the left who were ready to celebrate Obama's announcement can also take some solace in the fact that the administration's changes are still very much on track.
Indeed, as real as the controversy remains, and as fierce as the criticisms have been from the president's ostensible allies, the fact remains that the only thing that has changed is the calendar. If Obama had said, "I've changed my mind and there will be no executive actions on immigration whatsoever," that would be an example of cruel and demoralizing treachery. But that's not what has happened -- and in the broader context of a massive policy dispute, the real-world consequences of moving an announcement from September to November are relatively modest.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network and New Policy Institute -- an enthusiastic proponent of reform -- said in a statement, "Immigration advocates should be careful to temper their reaction [to the White House's postponement]. At the end of the day we are talking about a six week delay on an issue of enormous consequence. It is more important that it get done right than fast."
What about the notion that a delay means more deportations and more immigrant families torn apart? Rosenberg added that those fears may also be largely misplaced: "In discussing deportations, it is also important to consider how much the President has already done. The practical effect of these changes is the threat of deportation has already been lifted for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The assertion by some that delay means tens of thousands more 'innocent' immigrants will be deported are at best exaggerating the short term impact of today's decision."
It's worth appreciating the fact that nearly all of this fight is limited to stakeholders who ultimately agree on the substance: reform supporters who want an announcement on executive actions in September vs. reform supporters who want an announcement on executive actions in November. Republicans are disappointed, not because they wanted to see the underlying policy changes, but because they wanted to use the changes as a cudgel against red-state Democrats running tough re-election fights in states with small Latino populations.
To that end, the RNC issued a truly laughable statement on Saturday: "This is more evidence that Democrats never really wanted to fix our immigration system when Republicans were sitting at the table."
There is no version of reality in which this is anything but ridiculous. House Republicans -- who promised the nation they would act on immigration -- refused to consider bipartisan compromises, refused to present an alternative, and refused to negotiate.
And if the RNC is genuinely interested in "fixing our immigration system," can we assume they'll be applauding when Obama announces some executive actions in the fall? Or perhaps they're prepared to criticize the Republican-led House for breaking its word and refusing to even consider governing on the issue?