By Matt A. Barreto, Thomas F. Schaller and Gary M. Segura
Today marks the third anniversary of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, a critical moment in immigration policy history. DACA directed the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily defer action on young immigrants living in the United States who came to the U.S. at an early age as undocumented immigrants with their parents; in effect, via executive order DACA classified young immigrants who would have qualified for protection under the still-unpassed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to be treated as if the legislation had been enacted, at least in a recurring two-year temporary manner.
Three years later, what is the political significance of DACA? This analysis considers the two-fold political and electoral significance.
First, along with the subsequent Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) executive order issued by President Obama following the 2014 midterms, DACA immediately joined Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) as a certifiable litmus test issue for Latino voters and, presumably, for many non-Latinos as well. Second, DACA boosted President Obama's re-election prospects, thereby altering the electoral calculus for the 2016 presidential aspirants.
Without comprehensive immigration reform passing, all candidates hoping for the White House now face a DACA test: Do you support protecting such covered immigrants from deportation, or do you support lifting DACA executive orders which has the effect of continuing deportation orders against DREAMers and parents alike?
DACA and Obama 2012
Obama's historic, 2008 election win--including 67 percent support nationally from Latinos--obscured the fact that, during the 2008 Democratic primary, Latino Democrats preferred Hillary Clinton to Obama by a roughly two-to-one ratio. During both the primary and general election, Obama promised that, if elected, he would push for comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office.
By the end of 2009, however, the president had abandoned this pledge, raising doubts among Latinos about the new president's commitment to their agenda. Polled in late May and early June 2011, Latinos expressed conflicted feelings about the president's inaction on immigration. A slight plurality of Latinos, 46 percent, said it was "understandable" that the Administration did not prioritize immigration reform, given the pressing economic concerns at the time. But fully 42 percent said Obama had failed on immigration and "should have prioritized" reform. A little more than a year before he would stand for re-election, fewer than half of Latinos polled said they were certain they would vote for Obama in 2012.
If Latinos were disappointed by Obama's refusal to push for comprehensive immigration reform, they were quite frustrated by his administration's active support for increased deportations of undocumented immigrants. The number of deportations in 2009 and 2010 exceeded even the highest number of deportations during the preceding Bush Administration. By late 2011, President Obama's approval level fell to 49 percent among Latinos.
By early 2012 and the start of the Republican primary contest, President Obama's re-election team realized the Administration's decision to move slow on immigration reform had jeopardized his support among Latinos and, consequently, his re-election chances. However, Latino support for Obama immediately surged following his executive action announcement on June 15, 2012.
As it happened, Latino Decisions was in the field with a poll when the decision was announced, thus permitting a comparison of pre- and post-announcement subsamples. "This [DACA] action was a double win for the Obama campaign," according to a 2014 research study by political scientists Loren Collingwood, Justin Gross and Francisco Pedraza. "First, there was huge Latino support for the decision, and it was immediately reflected in polling numbers for Obama...Second, since the DACA directive announced by the president was an administrative order by an executive agency, Romney had to decide whether, if elected president, he would allow it to continue or halt it."
Obama's Latino Support Before and After DACA Decision
The decision boxed in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who not only opposed DACA but, in a botched attempt to hedge on question of deportations, issued his widely-panned "self-deportation" solution.
Five months later, 75 percent of Latinos voters supported the president at re-election according to the ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions 2012 election poll, and higher still in key swing states like Colorado, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico. Latino votes provided sufficient support to ensure Obama's won re-election. On election day, 58 percent of Latino voters said Obama's DACA policy made them more enthusiastic about voting for Obama, compared to just 6 percent who were less enthusiastic --a plus-52 favorable margin on election day! A simple tally of votes the day after election day 2012 proved that Latino voters provided Obama with his national margin of victory.
Immigration won't be the only meaningful issue during the 2016 presidential election, of course. Nor does the decision to support or oppose DACA fully encapsulate the national debate over immigration. But three years after President Barack Obama's electorally potent decision, what's clear is that immigration will be a defining issue between the two parties, and especially within the Republican Party.
In particular, the 2014 executive actions by President Obama have been greeted by overwhelming enthusiasm among Latino voters. A Latino Decisions poll in December 2014 found that fully 89 percent of Latino voters supported Obama's DACA and DAPA executive actions and 80 percent said they would oppose any efforts to block or repeal these immigration actions. Why? Because about two-thirds of Latino voters personally know an undocumented immigrant. Because the Congress has not passed immigration reform, leaving millions of immigrants and their families living in fear of deportation.
The DACA of June 15, 2012 represents a real, tangible step forward in the daily lives of immigrant families. More than 700,000 young immigrants have applied for DACA.
While DACA's primary, real-world policy legacy is the dramatic relief it provided to these young immigrants, President Obama's DACA announcement three years ago today also reshaped the national political debate on immigration, and particularly the use of presidential executive action as a solution to legislative gridlock. For Latinos, support for DACA specifically--and the use of unilateral presidential power in immigration politics generally--was on the ballot in 2012 and will be again in 2016.
Matt A. Barreto and Gary M. Segura are co-founders of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, and Thomas Schaller is political director for Latino Decisions. Barreto is Professor of Political Science at UCLA, Schaller is Professor of Political Science at UMBC, and Segura is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.