President Obama's standing with Latino advocacy groups improved dramatically last month after he directed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department to stop deporting undocumented immigrants who came to the US with their parents as minors. The move, largely a response to efforts by Florida senator Marco Rubio to introduce Republican-sponsored legislation to achieve the same end -- seemed to suggest that Obama was finally making good on his promise to promote immigration reform -- if only to try to rally disaffected Latino voters for November.
But now, word has leaked out that Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano and ICE director John Morton are pressuring the Justice Department to sue "sanctuary cities" like San Francisco and Chicago that still refuse to cooperate with the federal government in local immigration enforcement. Suing sanctuary cities - there are an estimated 30-35 nationwide, plus one state, Oregon - is certain to antagonize immigrant rights groups and will only push the administration's policy back in the direction of expanded enforcement and deportation, vitiating whatever gains Obama may have made with Latinos in recent weeks.
In fact, it's not at all clear that Latinos are flocking back to Obama. A USA Today/Gallup poll in June had the president with a 41-point lead over Romney, an advantage similar to the one he'd achieved over John McCain in 2008. But in the latest Quinnipiac poll, Obama's lead is down to 29 points. In fact, for the first time ever, a poll has Obama with less than 60% of the Latino vote, compared to 30% for Romney. And with 11% undecided, Romney may be able to narrow the gap still further. This seems to suggest that the administration's attempts to use immigration as a wedge issue against Romney may not be working as well as the administration had hoped, and that Romney's escalating Spanish-language ad campaign - focused largely on the economy - may be starting to bear fruit.
But news of another Obama immigration crackdown surely won't help. One of the first localities to be targeted by ICE's proposed lawsuit, Chicago, is a traditional immigrant gateway city with one of the largest and most combative immigrant rights movements in the nation. It also happens to be President Obama's long-time political base, and home to some of his top advisers. But according to the Washington Times, which first broke the story, Napolitano and Morton are reportedly "furious" that they have yet to secure Chicago's cooperation in the administration's flagship "Secure Communities" program, which runs the fingerprints of criminal suspects booked in local jails through an ICE database to verify their legal status. The threat of a lawsuit appears to reflect ICE's intent to force Chicago to comply, even it means provoking a messy confrontation that could well backfire politically.
And news of the growing pressure on the Justice Department over immigration enforcement couldn't come at a worse time for Attorney General Eric Holder, who is already engaged in a nasty confrontation with the House GOP over his role in the administration's covert gun-running program known as "Fast and Furious," which backfired, leaving two US border control agents dead. Two years ago, conservatives sharply criticized Holder for suggesting that the administration was under no obligation to force "sanctuary cities" to comply with US federal law even as the Department moved to sue states like Arizona for defying federal authorities. Now, even top members of the Obama administration are pressuring Holder to take action, if only to ensure that conservatives can't keep using the sanctuary issue to suggest that Obama has failed to "secure" the US-Mexico border.
It appears that Holder - and Obama - will soon face a difficult decision. Move forward with a lawsuit, four months before the election, alienating Obama's strong Latino base, or put the issue on hold, and feed GOP charges that the administration is still "playing politics" on immigration. However, this issue eventually gets sorted out, its short term fall-out for Obama and his re-election - with key Latino-rich states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado still up for grabs - could scarcely be much worse.