(Larry Downing, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama defended his deportation policies and said Republicans remain an obstacle to overhauling the immigration system so that undocumented immigrants have a pathway to legal status.
Speaking to a conference of Latino leaders Monday, Obama said that he and fellow Democrats are working to enact laws that would resolve the status of about 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
But Republicans have been a stubborn barrier, he said.
Obama's comments seemed aimed at defusing criticism that he has not done enough to change the nation's immigration laws, a source of rising Latino anger. When he ran for office in 2008, Obama said he would deal with the issue in his first year. But that promise was deferred while the healthcare overhaul got top priority and at this point, it's doubtful he can pass a bill until after the 2012 elections.
"I need a dance partner here," Obama said, "and the floor is empty."
He added, "So, yes, feel free to keep the heat on me and keep the heat on Democrats. But here's the only thing you should know. The Democrats and your president are with you. … Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws."
In the absence of new legislation, some congressional Democrats are urging the president to retool deportation policies using executive authority.
Four House Democrats wrote a letter to Obama last week saying federal agents are splitting up families by deporting people with no criminal records. They asked Obama not to deport those who would have fallen under the protection of the DREAM Act, a measure that would have provided a path to legal residency for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who met certain criteria.
Congress never passed the DREAM Act.
"As colleagues, supporters, allies and friends, we write to express our profound moral concerns with the immigration enforcement policies of your administration and to let you know of steps we are preparing to take next week to bear witness to the immense suffering that is the direct result of these policies," wrote John Lewis (D-Ga.), Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose), and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
Obama addressed the controversy at the conference, which was sponsored by the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.
"Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own," he said.
At that, the audience began chanting, "Yes you can!" -- a twist on Obama's 2008 campaign slogan.
"Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you. Not just on immigration reform, " said the president, who has also been warring with congressional Republicans over an increase in the federal debt limit. "But that's not how our system works."
Conference leaders said afterward they gave Obama credit for showing up. They said they sent invitations to five Republican presidential candidates – Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman Jr. , Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty -- and either got no answers or were turned down.
Yet they said they were disappointed by Obama's comments. They want to see the White House move more quickly to enforce immigration laws in ways that don't disrupt families.
"There was nothing new" in Obama's comments on immigration, said Clarissa Martinez, an NCLR official. "We would have liked to hear something more forceful because while we understand that the president alone cannot enact legislation, we do believe he has some authority to bring relief to the enforcement of what he admitted is a failed policy. But unfortunately, that wasn't articulated -- and it was made known by the audience."
In a reply to the congressmen dated Monday, Obama wrote that his administration is deporting fewer people without criminal records than in previous years. What's more, the non-criminals being deported aren't necessarily being yanked from families. Last year, nearly two-thirds were picked up at the border or had come back to the U.S. despite having been previously deported, the letter said.
"This means that, consistent with (Department of Homeland Security) enforcement priorities, the vast majority of the non-criminals who were removed from the country were either repeat offenders or very recent arrivals who were unlikely to be part of families who are being separated as a result of our enforcement efforts," Obama wrote.