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Lynn Sweet: The politics of immigration

President Barack Obamannounces thhis administratiwill stop deporting beggranting work permits younger illegal immigrants who came U.S. as children have since

President Barack Obama announces that his administration will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since led law-abiding lives, during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Updated: July 17, 2012 12:54PM

WASHINGTON — “He has done with one swoop of the pen, he has mended a relationship with the Latino community that has been frayed,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez told me Friday afternoon, after President Barack Obama announced that students in the U.S. illegally — through no fault of their own — will not be deported.

“More and more the road to the White House is through the Latino community. And today he has changed the outlook significantly in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida,” said Gutierrez, mentioning key battleground states with significant Latino populations.

Gutierrez for some time now has been willing to criticize Obama over immigration policy, with the Chicago lawmaker straining relations with the Chicago president, a fellow Democrat. Gutierrez was arrested twice in front of the White House to protest the Obama administrations’ slowness to act on immigration, even as he attended Oval Office meetings with his Hispanic Caucus colleagues pushing the president to take actions.

Last September Obama, speaking to a White House roundtable organized for Hispanic outlets, protested that with the DREAM Act stalled in Congress — the bill to allow illegal students to become citizens — said there was little he could do.

“I just have to continue to say this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true,” Obama said then. “We are doing everything we can administratively. But the fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce. And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true.”

Yet on Friday, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security provided a path for hundreds of thousands of young people who were raised in the U.S. to remain.

“Now, let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people,” Obama said.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — who has championed and sponsored the DREAM Act since 2001 — was instrumental in keeping pressure on the White House and DHS to find an administrative solution since Congress would not act.

What tipped Obama’s hand to finally take action: The November election is closer, and Obama — through inaction — was risking Hispanic votes after getting the lion’s share in 2008. He needs to recapture that vote in 2012.

Frustration and disappointment was increasingly growing within the Hispanic community — an important Democratic constituency, one with deep ties to labor unions, another crucial part of the base.

At the same time, Obama’s move on Friday boxes in rival Mitt Romney.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — mentioned as a potential Romney running mate, a rising GOP Hispanic star and the son of Cuban immigrants — is working on legislation to ease the deportation risk for illegal youths, a sort of watered-down DREAM Act.

Rubio’s work on a compromise measure — one that could get the supermajority 60 votes it takes in the Senate — looms as a complicating factor for Romney, who is also wooing Hispanic voters in those battleground states.

Obama’s announcement will help his campaign mobilize and rally Hispanics.

Romney has to weigh alienating them. Romney did not close the door to helping the illegal youths on Friday in a cautious reply to the DHS order. He said Obama’s stopgap move will make it harder to find a permanent cure.

“I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country,” Romney said in New Hampshire. “I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution.”

Gutierrez welcomed the progress no matter if it came about only because of presidential politics.

“That’s what we do in America, have elections,” said Gutierrez. “Did he do it because of the election? Then he certainly deserves the vote.”

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