President Barack Obama wasn’t happy when a heckler interrupted his immigration speech in San Francisco last month. That was just the beginning.
Since Ju Hong’s protest of the administration’s deportation policies, the graduate student and periodic immigration protestor has gone on a media blitz, appearing on outlets from the BBC to Bay Area local news to Korean radio along with writing a Huffington Post column
. More worrisome for the White House, the incident prompted an extensive discussion of Obama’s aggressive deportation policies on Spanish-language television and tapped tapped a long-simmering nerve among immigration activists that Obama has failed to stem the tide.
For the White House, the risk is that its efforts to channel public anger at House Republicans for inaction on immigration will be taken over by activists unhappy over the fact Obama has sent away more people than during every other presidency combined. Latino voters helped push Obama to victory in key battleground states in 2012, but if Latino enthusiasm for Democrats wanes, the party risks alienating or splintering the group.
“Because of one specific action the narrative of this immigration issue has changed,” Hong said in an interview. “We’ve been talking about Congress and blaming Congress, but with the action that I took, I strongly believe that the message has shifted to President Obama.”
(WATCH: Obama confronts heckler on immigration
The White House reacted immediately, with Obama last Friday visiting the Fast for Families tent near the Capitol where activists are praying for congressional action on immigration legislation. But at the San Francisco speech and a fundraiser afterwards, Obama said he can’t act by executive order alone.
“The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” Obama said at the time. “What I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done.”
The argument from activists seeking to slow the pace of deportations, Obama should stop deporting so-called DREAMers — people who would be allowed to stay in the country under the comprehensive immigration reform bill the Senate passed earlier this year. Obama has already halted the deportation of family members of members of the U.S. military.
A White House official said the only way to advance any immigration agenda is through Congress — not by pressuring the president.
“Earlier this year, the House voted to reverse the action taken by the administration to provide deferred action to DREAMers,” the official said. “It is unrealistic to think that the president can skirt the law and take even more aggressive measures unilaterally.”
(Also on POLITICO: Obama challenges immigration heckler
And most worst-case scenarios don’t foretell Latino voters migrating to a Republican Party whose last presidential candidate advocated self-deportation. But Obama may need to do more than just call for House Speaker John Boehner to act on immigration.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has been arrested at the White House protesting the Obama administration’s deportation policies, said Hong is not alone in his sentiment. Gutierrez on Thursday was one of 29 Democratic House members who wrote to Obama asking him to “suspend any further deportations and expand the successful deferred action program.”
“That young man is a reflection of a very broadly held sentiment in the immigrant community,” Gutierrez said. “People should not diminish what he said because of how he said it. Take at face value that his sentiment is one that is widely held.”
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, agreed.
“What you’ll see in 2014 is as the prospect of legislation becomes significantly reduced, the pressure on Obama is going to be significantly increased,” Sharry said. “I’m sure the White House would love to keep the focus on Boehner and the Republicans as long as possible, but they don’t speak for our movement.”
This piece first appeared in Politico