New York Times
By Michael D. Shear and Julia Preston
March 14, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama and his top aides have for months rejected demands from Hispanic activists that Mr. Obama wave a magic wand to end deportations, an action the White House saw as so antagonistic to Republicans that it would destroy any hope for a bipartisan immigration overhaul and even open the door to impeachment.
But the growing sense of desperation among Latinos about the deportation of nearly two million illegal immigrants has engulfed top Democrats on Capitol Hill, who fear that Hispanic voters’ anger at the president could disastrously sink turnout in the coming midterm elections.
The result is a shift in direction for the president, who signaled on Thursday night that he wants to find a legal way to reduce the number of otherwise law-abiding families who are torn apart by deportation. In a two-hour meeting with immigration activists on Friday, the president again pledged to refine enforcement of immigration laws.
In the meeting, the president pressed the activists to remain focused on his push for legislation to overhaul immigration laws and said that a new system remains the best way to permanently fix the problem of deportations, according to participants. Mr. Obama reminded the activists, the participants said, that any action he took on his own would be fleeting and not comprehensive.
But Mr. Obama promised that Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, would review his department’s actions to address what he called a moral crisis among immigrants. Several of the activists pledged to help Mr. Obama keep the pressure on Republicans, but at the meeting said that Mr. Obama needs to do more than that.
“We agree with the president that the only permanent solution is legislation,” said Lorella Praeli, a leader of United We Dream, a youth organization. “We disagree that he cannot act today to halt deportations and be bold on the administrative front. We don’t need a review at this time. We need him to act.”
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, said activists vowed to continue pressing for an end to deportations. “The community needs broad relief,” Mr. Bhargava said, adding: “The progress today was the president’s willingness to engage. But the verdict is still out.”
Mr. Obama’s decision to review immigration enforcement is a recognition of the election-year dangers his party faces and an attempt by White House officials to reassure Latino supporters that the president is not immune to their pain. It is also a message to House Republicans to stop blocking passage of the stalled immigration overhaul.
But it remains unclear whether Mr. Obama can do anything that would satisfy Latino activists without providing fuel for Republican accusations that he is baldly sidestepping the nation’s laws.
“What are we to do when a president, regardless of motivation, nullifies our vote by failing to faithfully execute the law?” Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said in a fiery floor speech this week. “Why pursue immigration reform if presidents can turn off the very provisions that we pass?”
A move by Mr. Obama to limit deportations on his own would enrage House Republicans, who in recent weeks have cited Mr. Obama’s various executive actions — as well as his State of the Union promise to use a “pen and phone” to circumvent Congress when possible — as reasons they do not trust him enough to work with him on a broad issue like immigration.
“It looks to me like he’s preparing another trial balloon to go forth with more likely unconstitutional executive actions,” said Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who has long been a vocal opponent of the president on immigration. “I don’t know how trust can be restored.”
Even the Republican leadership in the House, which has expressed an interest in passing some form of an immigration overhaul, said that Mr. Obama’s latest announcement could further hamper any immigration progress in Congress.
“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,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner. “Failing to do so would damage — perhaps beyond repair — our ability to build the trust necessary to enact real immigration reform.”
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Friday that Mr. Obama “does not have the authority to achieve comprehensive immigration reform” through executive action. “There is no fix here that does not include legislation,” he added.
Mr. Carney’s answer does not satisfy some activists and Hispanic lawmakers, who are tired of waiting. In a meeting on Tuesday with Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel, aides to three senior Democratic senators argued that the president has the authority to choose how to enforce current laws with finite resources.
They suggested that the White House extend protections from deportation to undocumented immigrants who are parents of American citizens. The senators’ staff also suggested that Mr. Obama tell immigration officials that their priority in deportations should be people ineligible for legalization if an immigration overhaul that has passed the Senate became law.
The White House and Senate Democrats are hoping that the threat of unilateral action by Mr. Obama will prompt some Republicans to accept the Senate bill, which passed with bipartisan support.
“Or they can sit idly by and watch the president greatly curtail deportations while 11 million continue to live in limbo here in America,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. “The choice is clear: A reform bill has the support of liberals, moderates and conservatives, and all we need is the courage of the Republican leadership to make the right and obvious choice.”
Several legal scholars said Friday that the president has only some leeway to give protection from deportation to larger numbers of immigrants here illegally.
They said the president’s best options would be modeled on a program Mr. Obama started in 2012 that has given temporary reprieves from deportation to more than 500,000 young immigrants who came to this country illegally as children. That program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, does not provide any visa or legal immigration status, which scholars agree only Congress can do. It defers deportations case by case as an exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the president might offer reprieves to otherwise law-abiding immigrants who had been here without documentation for a decade or more.
“As long as he is not trying to change the law unilaterally but he is trying to impose order on the system, he is well within his discretion,” Mr. Motomura said.
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