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Obama's craven delay on immigration [Editorial]

Want to know what average Americans think of a president who makes decisions based on politics and not what he actually believes in? President Barack Obama should rent a copy of "The American President" with friends and listen to the cheers when President Andrew Shepherd as played by Michael Douglas (and penned by Aaron Sorkin) finally figures out to stop paying attention to polls and start doing what's right and back the environmental legislation supported by his girlfriend, played by Annette Bening.

President Obama's recent decision to delay executive action on immigration reform is much like President Shepherd's initial endorsement of a "crime bill" in the movie to help his re-election bid — it's a cave-in to certain Democrats running in competitive Senate races. Immigration reform isn't playing well, apparently, in states like Alaska and Arkansas, and the calculation is that control of the Senate may hinge on those tight races.

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There are several things wrong with that kind of thinking. The first is that nobody believes it's anything more than a cynical political tactic. In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the president said the delay will help make immigration policies "sustainable," whatever that means. Perhaps he meant that if Democrats lose the Senate, it's his party that will be doing the emigrating right out of Senate leadership posts.

More likely, the White House wants immigration to be much more of a front burner issue in 2016 because Latino voters are likely to be a much greater political force in battleground states. Mr. Obama also blamed immigration politics as shifting in recent weeks because of the influx of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America. If so, then he shares the blame for not standing up sufficiently for these youngest victims of a broken immigration policy and allowing them to be vilified by the right as gang members or worse.

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What's truly absurd is the notion that somehow candidates like Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Mary Landrieu in Louisiana will have their prospects brightened because an executive order has been delayed. On the issue of immigration, political conservatives have largely abandoned their pro-business roots to appeal to the most base, xenophobic instincts of voters. They've also succeeded in making their supporters believe signing an executive order is the equivalent of tearing up the Constitution, even though his predecessors signed more such documents. And yet these same anti-immigrant, anti-Obama voters will stay home if he promises to wait until later before picking up his pen?

Here's what the delay really means. It means that the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in this country will continue to be treated as sub-humans and likely thousands more will be deported, their families torn asunder, between now and whenever Mr. Obama actually takes action on his executive order. The expectation was that the order would have deferred deportations for as many as 5 million people and make it somewhat easier to obtain a green card, a policy that would not only bring families out of the shadows but boost the U.S. economy.

And it sends a message to Democratic voters, be they in North Carolina, Alaska or just about anywhere, that Mr. Obama is willingly playing a game with people's lives. He promised reform and now he's setting that aside for political reasons. Why would Democrats want to support such a president? Pragmatism is fine when it leads to getting things done, but delaying this executive order doesn't win over conservatives, it only creates more hardship for immigrants and causes the president's allies to lose faith in his leadership. That's not a formula for the Democrats winning the Senate in 2014, it's a prescription for the party losing the White House in 2016.

Paging First Lady Michelle Obama. In the movie, it was the prospect of losing love-interest Sydney Ellen Wade that caused President Shepherd to confront his political detractors head-on and endorse controversial pro-environment, pro gun-control policies. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board has already complained that the decision to delay the executive order instead of abandoning it altogether shows Mr. Obama is "incapable" of "persuasion and compromise." And that's from a right-wing outlet that has supported immigration reform. Mr. President, you're not fooling anybody. Sign the order.

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To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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