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Obama Immigration, Gay Marriage 'Evolution' Shifts Voter Opinion, Galvanizes Base

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President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House June 21.
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House June 21.

Between delivering steaming platters of enchiladas and clearing away the remains, Evelyn Rivera often overhears conversations in the Orlando, Fla.-area restaurant where she waits tables. This year, Rivera, 23, has heard more than one about the choices facing Latino voters in 2012.

"I think there's this sense that the choice is between the guy who has deported millions and this guy who suggests things like self-deportation and maybe wouldn't mind that electrified border fence," said Rivera, an undocumented immigrant and immigration reform activist. "So, why vote?"

Less than six months from the election that will determine whether President Barack Obama returns to office, Obama announced plans to offer some measure of relief to as many as 1.4 million young unauthorized immigrants, often dubbed Dreamers, in reference to the Dream Act, a decade-old immigration reform bill.

Critics of the administration's new ban on deporting certain young undocumented immigrants say it is tantamount to the president's announcement on gay marriage -- more symbolic and politically advantageous than substantive. Others wonder why he waited so long. But advocates insist that the move constitutes something rare: a combination of good policy and genius politics.

In May and again this month, the president managed to give young voters, LGBT individuals and Latinos of all ages and sexual orientations a reason to get animated around the possibility of a second Obama term, said Fred Sainz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. The Human Rights Campaign is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Obama's gay marriage announcement and immigration policy shift amount to "evidence of the president's commitment to groups of Americans that might have otherwise gotten the short shrift," Sainz said.

In at least one major way, Obama's ABC News interview on gay marriage and the administrative change in deportation policy are not alike, said Charles Garcia, a venture capitalist, CNN political commentator and HuffPost blogger. Garcia is an Independent who has supported Republican and Democratic candidates. The president's gay marriage interview left no one with the right to marry who did not already have it, Garcia said.

But, after both announcements on what are arguably some of the most controversial social issues of the day, public opinion seems to be largely in line with that of the president.

Nearly 65 percent of likely voters surveyed after Obama's deportation reform announcement said they agreed with the new approach, according to a Bloomberg poll released this week and conducted after the president's immigration announcement.

And in a Washington Post-ABC news poll conducted within weeks of the president's gay marriage announcement, a record 53 percent of Americans indicated they too support gay marriage. Still, two-thirds of Americans also thought the president was motivated to speak publicly about his changed stance on gay marriage by political gamesmanship, according to a New York Times/CBS poll taken shortly after the ABC interview where Obama spoke of his "evolution."

"This is really the equivalent of Obama saying I am not for clubbing baby seals," said Efren Perez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who studies immigration, about the change in deportation practices. "That's how widespread support for this group of young undocumented young people is. Now Republicans have to come up with a way to say well, some of us are for clubbing baby seals. Politically, you really don't want to be that person."

Republicans, who have continued to call for stepped-up enforcement of immigration law, have largely been critical of the president's new directive, claiming Obama has overstepped his authority.

The president has created a constitutional crisis, said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for limited legal immigration and strict enforcement of related laws. The president does not have the legal authority to make the sort of change that he announced last week, Camarota said.

"It's corny and maybe hackneyed, but the rule of law is the foundation of a democratic republic," Camarota said. "We elected people who are supposed to make the laws and someone to implement the laws. If that all gets short circuited what's the value of the law?"

On Thursday, after evading questions about the president's deportation reform, Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, laid out his ideas.

Romney renewed a call for increased border security and regulatory pressure on undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The combination will prevent new illegal immigration and push unauthorized immigrants already here to leave, he said. Romney also told the group he would only offer deportation protection and a path to citizenship to young undocumented adults who join the military. He spoke about the need for assistance for families split by deportation, but offered few specifics.

What Obama has done is move immigration squarely into the center of the election, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration reform advocacy organization. The move also proves the post-Clinton Democratic Party orthodoxy on controversial social issues such as gay marriage and immigration is dead, he said.

"The old way of thinking was if you lean in on immigration and gay marriage and other controversies," Sharry said, "you lose swing voters and some Democrats, and the Latino voters or young voters you may gain can't make up the difference. The new conventional wisdom says lean in and lead because these also happen to be the right things to do."

While eligible Latino voters will not personally benefit from the president's new approach to deportation, and have in most polls indicated that immigration does not rank among their political priorities, there is good reason to believe that the president's immigration announcement matters. A quarter of Latino adults indicated that they know someone detained in the last year by immigration officials or deported, according to a Pew poll.

A Latino Decisions poll conducted after the immigration announcement indicates the president's immigration policy shift has also set off a burst of interest in the presidential election among Latino voters, among whom election turnout is typically low. That is particularly meaningful in battleground states where Latinos may determine the election outcome such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida, said Garcia, the CNN commentator.

On Friday, when Obama laid out an at-least temporary reprieve for young undocumented individuals, Rivera wasn't in Orlando. Rivera and other undocumented activists had gathered in D.C. to lobby for the Dream Act.

Minutes after the president spoke, Rivera's older sister -- a U.S. citizen who struggles with guilt about the life options she has and Rivera, until recently, has not -- called. Rivera's sister talked about her plans to make sure that Obama is re-elected.

"When we talked, that's when I broke down," Rivera said. "We both cried. I think what happened wasn't just what Dreamers needed. I think a lot of people in our families, our friends this is what they needed, too. Latinos who can vote needed to know that we matter."

This story has been updated to reflect comment from Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

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