WASHINGTON – 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 more than a dozen labor and immigration leaders to the White House on Friday to discuss his directive.
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. 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.
Go bold, go big, go now, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. 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.
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 and that enforcement has broken up otherwise law-abiding families.