By Jim Kuhnhenn
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 17 labor and immigration leaders to the White House Friday afternoon for what some participants described as a spirited discussion of his deportation 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.”
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.