Obama insists that the nation's laws limit his ability to act
unilaterally, even though his administration acted on its own last
year to suspend deportations of some immigrants brought illegally
into the country as children and more recently decided some
relatives of U.S. service members living here illegally could
The moves stand in sharp contrast to the actions of Obama's Homeland
Security Department, which has deported a record 1.47 million people
during the president's nearly five years in office, according to
internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. Heckling of the
president during California appearances Monday underscored the
dissatisfaction with the Democratic president, not only over the
stalled immigration overhaul but the administration's policies.
"Stop deportations! Stop deportations!" audience members yelled at
Obama during a speech in San Francisco that was interrupted by a
young man who said his family has been separated for 19 months.
"Executive order" was the rallying cry at a separate Democratic
fundraiser Monday. Obama, the former instructor in constitutional
law, responded to the criticism with a brief lesson in the nation's
"If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws
in Congress, then I would do so," Obama told the first group. "But
we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition. And so
the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do
something by violating our laws."
House Republican leaders have rejected the Democratic-controlled
Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, which passed on a
bipartisan vote in June. The far-reaching measure would provide new
visa and workplace enforcement programs and billions of dollars for
border security, along with a path to citizenship for millions.
Small, stand-alone bills from the House Judiciary Committee have
languished for months, and leaders signaled that votes are unlikely
in this year's remaining legislative days even though Obama recently
embraced the piecemeal approach. Prospects for immigration
legislation in 2014, with congressional elections looming, are slim
despite the issue's political drag on the GOP.
Advocacy groups have been as loud as the California protesters in
calling for Obama to act while they maintain pressure on House
Republicans with protests and acts of civil disobedience.
"House Republicans are infuriating, and legislation is the permanent
solution, and we're going to keep fighting for legislation. But that
doesn't let Obama off the hook," Frank Sharry, executive director of
America's Voice, a pro-immigrant group, said Tuesday. "He continues
to be the president who presides over record deportation."
What angers the advocacy groups is that many of those deported are
immigrants who would qualify for legal status or citizenship under
the Senate-passed legislation, which Obama supports.
The organizations argue that Obama could expand his Deferred Action
for Childhood Arrivals program, which dealt with some of the
children brought illegally into the country, to their parents. He
also could delay action against workers who have helped in the
prosecution of employers who have broken the law or immigrants who
don't represent a threat to national security, the groups say.
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"The president does have the authority and the ability to ease the
crisis on the ground while the legislative process continues to play
out," Ana Avendano, director of immigration and community action at
the AFL-CIO, said in an interview.
Advocates point to a June 2011 memo from Immigration and Customs
Enforcement that provided guidance on using prosecutorial discretion
in carrying out the nation's immigration laws. The discretion
applied to a range of steps that could be taken in enforcing the
laws, such as deciding whom to stop and arrest, or whom to release,
and applied to officers, agents and lawyers.
"Prosecutorial discretion is the authority of an agency charged with
enforcing a law to decide to what degree to enforce the law against
a particular individual," the memo said.
Advocates contend that the memo gave agents, officers and lawyers
flexibility in pursuing immigrants living here illegally, with
priority given to criminals. But the Obama administration, they say,
continues to strictly implement deportations.
About 370,000 people were removed last year, down from more than
409,000 people last year. The Homeland Security Department received
money to remove about 400,000 a year, but the government decides who
those people are. Hirsoshi Motomura, a law professor and immigration
law expert at UCLA, said Obama could decide, for instance, to
provide deferred action to groups of people described as low
priorities in previous discretion memos issued by former ICE
Director John Morton.
Meantime, several advocacy groups continue to fault the
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer
Organizing Network, said in a statement that Obama has a
"credibility gap" on immigration, imploring Congress to pass
legislation while his administration implements its deportation
"The president can do more, and he knows it," Alvarado said.
Traveling with Obama in California, a White House spokesman, Josh
Earnest, did not rule out some sort of executive action. That
possibility unnerves Republicans who point to Obama's unilateral
changes to the health care law, such as delaying some requirements
and enrollment deadlines.
Press; DONNA CASSATA]
Associated Press writer
Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.
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