President Obama defends himself against charges he is the "deporter… (Michael Reynolds / European…)
WASHINGTON — With their hopes for broad legislation to overhaul immigration policies all but dead for the year, advocates have turned quickly to a new target: Pushing President Obama to take executive action to ease deportations of immigrants in the country illegally.
In a coordinated, aggressive and sharp-elbowed campaign, leaders who stood behind the White House not long ago as the president called immigration reform his top second-term priority are now attacking Obama for not doing enough on his own. Dismissing Obama’s insistence that his hands are tied by the law, advocates plan to pile on until he relents -- as he did once before in the run-up to an election.
This week, the president of the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino advocacy organization and one of the White House’s most loyal allies, blasted Obama as the “deporter in chief.”
In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Obama’s fellow Illinois Democrat, pointed to portraits of Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama and compared deportations under each. “President Obama has detained more immigrants in jails, prisons and detention facilities than any other president,” Gutierrez said.
The charge is not new; Obama has long faced criticism for presiding over a record number of deportations, roughly 2 million to date. Still, the strategy sends a mixed message to a key Democratic constituency before the midterm election. Democrats hoped to see immigration advocates assail Republicans who held up the overhaul bill.
Advocates suggest their goal is to play one off the other, arguing that Republicans in Congress may feel compelled to advance legislation if they think the president is on the verge of taking unilateral action.
“Republicans can either be participants in how this country advances more sensible immigration policies or they can simply sit on the sidelines while the president does it with his ‘phone and pen.’” Gutierrez said, picking up the president’s shorthand for his promise to wield his executive power to take action without Congress.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, thinks it’s likely Obama will eventually act. “The administration is deporting people every day who the administration says should be given legal status and a path to citizenship, so the question is: If Republicans continue to stall, does the president have the authority to make things better?” Sharry said. “We think he will act even though he’s not talking like it now.”
For now, the White House is absorbing the criticism, careful not to return fire and potentially alienate Latinos voters, a constituency that cares about immigration reform and has been loyal to the president.
Obama on Thursday argued that he was not the “deporter in chief” but the “champion in chief” of the stalled comprehensive immigration reform effort.
Speaking at a White House-sponsored town hall on Latinos and healthcare, the president argued he was constrained by statute in how he treats immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to get comprehensive immigration reform done this year.”
Obama has repeated a version of the comment scores of times. But it’s little surprise the immigrant community isn’t taking it at face value. The president made very similar statements about the limits of his executive power in 2012 -- before he announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, which allowed young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits and avoid being deported.
Advocates want Obama to expand that order to include other immigrants with strong ties to the U.S. and no criminal history.
That’s the sort of sweeping change the White House says is beyond its power. The legal basis for the president’s deferred-action order would erode if it were expanded, administration officials say privately. But they haven’t ruled out smaller changes.
Advocates want Obama to end the Secure Communities program, which checks the immigration status of people fingerprinted at state and local jails and, if need be, notifies immigration authorities. They want to cancel agreements that allow local law enforcement officials to coordinate with immigration agents. They want the administration’s policy on prosecutorial discretion revised so fewer immigrants with minor criminal offenses are deemed “high priority.” And they want to end Operation Streamline, which brings criminal charges against border-crossers.