After months raising expectations among immigrant advocates, President Obama announced Sunday he won’t take promised action to grant protection from deportation to some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the the U.S.–at least not until after the election. The move is cynical in the extreme. First, he raised hopes for those affected that he could with a stroke of his pen rewrite immigration law on his own. The constitutionality of such action is, at best, debatable, and it would have been, rightly, challenged. But the president clearly thought the politics would cut the Democrats’ way, which is why he made the pledge to take executive action. Of course the promise was completely cynical and also undermined the possibility of real immigration reform in the future. When Senate Democrats up for re-election from red states complained to the White House, the president backed off–but in such a way as to keep Hispanic voters and others for whom immigration reform is a priority hoping that he’ll make good his promise after the election.

The tragedy is that the president played right into the hands of those most opposed to do anything on immigration–except of course “securing the border.” But securing the border requires making changes to current law that allow needed workers to enter legally–and that requires Congressional action.

Our immigration laws should serve our economic needs and reflect our principles and values. We need legal immigration reform–and we need it now. Maintaining our outdated system harms the economy and slows growth. But the president can’t unilaterally decide to enact his own law. He has some discretion–he can decide to target convicted criminals for deportation instead of high school valedictorians–but he can’t simply affix his signature to a presidential order and abrogate Congress’s authority to legislate in this area. Pretending that he can for partisan gain helps no one, least of all the 11 million undocumented immigrants whose hopes he raised or the millions of other voters who believed him.