President Barack Obama’s new promise to seek ways to ease his administration’s rate of deportations aims to mollify angry immigrant advocates but carries risks for a White House that has insisted it has little recourse.
In asking Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review enforcement practices, Obama could undo already fragile congressional efforts to overhaul immigration laws. And he still could fall short of satisfying the demands of pro-immigrant groups that have been increasing pressure on him to dramatically reverse the administration’s record of deportations.
The White House announced Thursday that Obama had directed Johnson, who was sworn in three months ago, to see how the department “can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.” Then the president summoned 17 labor and immigration leaders to the White House Friday afternoon for what some participants described as a spirited discussion of his deportations policies and the strategy for enacting a comprehensive congressional overhaul of immigration laws.
“The president displayed a great deal of sympathy for the families affected by the deportation machinery,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said after the nearly two-hour session. “There was less agreement on when and what should be done about it by the president.”
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Participants emerged from the meeting unified in their call for House Republicans to act on immigration legislation. Privately, some said Obama voiced frustration during the meeting with the criticism some of them have directed at him, including calling him “deporter in chief.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s office pointedly warned that fixes to the immigration system should be carried out by Congress, not by the president on his own. The Democratic-controlled Senate last year passed a comprehensive bill that would enhance border security and provide a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. But the Republican-held House has delayed action and favors a more piecemeal approach.
“There’s no doubt we have an immigration system that is failing families and our economy, but until it is reformed through the democratic process, the president is obligated to enforce the laws we have,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Friday. “Failing to do so would damage – perhaps beyond repair – our ability to build the trust necessary to enact real immigration reform.”
But immigrant advocates insisted Obama needs to act promptly and broadly to reduce deportations, which have reached nearly 2 million during his presidency.
The White House has pointed to the high level of deportations as evidence that Obama is paying heed to border security, a Republican priority.
In testimony before Congress last week, Johnson said the deportations meet Immigration and Customs Enforcement priorities by focusing on criminals or suspicious individuals who could pose national security and public safety threats. But he also acknowledged that a large number of immigrants arrested and turned back at the border are also counted as deportations even though previous administrations have not.
Still, pro-immigration groups say deportations have broken up families and forced otherwise law-abiding foreigners out of the country.
Sharry said his message to the president was: “Go bold, go big, go now.”
“The president has the ability to step into the vacuum created by the House Republican inaction to protect millions of people who are low priority, use his executive authority in an expansive way,” he said.
In the face of such pressure, including public heckling, Obama has time and again insisted that he must follow the law and the only way to reduce deportations is through legislation passed by Congress.
White House officials on Friday downplayed the ability of the administration to take unilateral steps that would significantly reduce deportations, and some conceded that the results of the review were not likely to satisfy all advocacy groups.
Still, White House spokesman Jay Carney fine-tuned Obama’s past declarations that any executive action was out of the question, leaving the door open for Obama to take some unilateral steps.
“The president understands and is concerned about the pain caused by separations that have come about through deportation, but he also understands and has made clear that there’s no comprehensive fix here that he can himself enact,” he said.
Following the meeting, the White House said Johnson, who attended the session in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, committed “to ensure our immigration laws are enforced effectively, sensibly, and in line with our nation’s traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
It was unclear what steps the Obama administration would take. It has already acted on its own to keep young people who were brought to the United States illegally from being deported, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency issued a memorandum in 2011 setting priorities for deportation that put an emphasis on persons suspected of terrorism, convicted of crimes or having participated in gang activities. Immigrant advocates say that guidance has been followed sporadically.
“I would take a look at why that memorandum has not worked as intended,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a leading voice in the immigration overhaul effort tin the House and one of several lawmakers who wrote to Obama asking him to review his administration’s deportation policies.
“The president doesn’t have limitless authority in this arena,” she said. “But he has more authority than he has yet used.”
Asked if simply applying the 2011 guidelines more uniformly would satisfy critics of Obama’s deportation policies, Sharry said: “The answer is no. The fact is you have many immigrant-led groups that are calling for immediate suspension of deportations.”
The National Immigration Law Center has called on the administration to make sure the 2011 guidelines are followed and has further proposed that agents who do not follow the policies be held accountable. It also calls for strict application of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement directive from last August that called for using discretion in the deportation of parents or primary caretakers of minors or of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
That is far from a universal view on Capitol Hill.
“It is astonishing that the president would order an ‘enforcement review’ not for the purposes of repairing enforcement but weakening it further,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a leading opponent of legislation that would allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally to stay. “This latest action further demonstrates that the administration cannot be trusted to enforce any immigration plan from Congress.”