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posted: 7/9/2014 5:01 AM

Cold and calculating on immigration

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Whenever President Obama acts unilaterally on immigration reform -- and it's not often enough -- the reactions on both the right and the left are so predictable.

Conservatives will holler that the sky is falling, and charge that Obama is acting like a king rather than a president. They'll insist that, by failing to consult with Congress, he's trampling on the separation of powers, and that he seeks to impose by fiat a makeshift version of amnesty.

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Liberals will take a crumb and declare it a steak. Three reasons: They're desperate. They want to pretend that they moved the president to act. And they want to think they didn't misjudge Obama from the beginning, mistaking for a reformer someone who turned out to be one of the biggest immigration restrictionists to occupy the White House.

You'll hear both perspectives over the next few weeks now that Obama has said he is finally prepared to use his executive authority to curtail deportations of illegal immigrants. This would be the same executive authority that Obama and many of his surrogates have spent the last few years insisting that he didn't have. They were afraid of the political pushback. Now Obama claims that he is ordering his advisers to develop a list of executive actions he could take to ease off the deportations of those illegal immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety, and that he intends to take some sort of action by the end of the summer.

Immigrant advocates -- including the "dreamers," those undocumented young people who have shaken up the immigration debate by holding both parties accountable -- are giddy at the prospect that they might have finally gotten through and convinced Obama about the need to lessen his deportation juggernaut. They hope that the president will extend the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which Obama unveiled in June 2012 in an attempt to win over Latino voters for his re-election. DACA allows young undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents to avoid deportation and obtain work permits for two years. The advocates also want Obama to scrap Secure Communities, the controversial program that ropes local police into the enforcement of immigration law and which the Obama administration aggressively expanded to more than 1,200 jurisdictions across the country.

We'll see about that. Many on the right insist they don't trust Obama because they think he has gone too far in using executive power to protect the undocumented. But many on the left don't trust him either -- they don't think he's gone nearly far enough. Both sides have learned not to take anything this president says at face value. This is especially true when it comes to the thorny topic of immigration, where Obama finds himself in a pickle because he wants to be tough and compassionate in a debate that doesn't allow much room for people to be both.

To show that he's compassionate, Obama says he is willing to consider options to lessen the deportations that his own Department of Homeland Security accelerated to record numbers. It did so by eroding the discretion of federal agents and prosecutors, relying on monthly quotas and using local police as a force multiplier.

To show that he's tough, Obama appears to be coupling his sudden conversion on deportations with a planned crackdown on the now estimated 52,000 border kids who have entered the United States in the last nine months or so. Three-fourths of these young people came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These are dangerous countries where many of them were threatened with beatings, rape and even death. Still, Obama wants to send them back and he's asking Congress for $2 billion in additional funding to speed the deportations of those children.

The president is wrapping all this together by saying that he intends to shift emphasis from the interior to the border. In other words, he is going to stop trying so hard to deport people who have been here for many years and focus instead on removing those who just arrived. Obama is driving a wedge between the "dreamers" and the border kids. Some will stay, others will go.

This doesn't sound either compassionate or tough. It sounds cold and calculating. And that makes sense, considering the source.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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