President Obama has got a "pen and a phone" and he's not afraid to use it. Except when it comes to halting deportations.
At the State of the Union, Obama is expected to reiterate his approach to see more of his agenda enacted via executive authority and other methods that skirt Congress. But while immigration advocates have largely been in lockstep with the White House on the broader issue of comprehensive reform, many are wholly unsatisfied by the lack of action on deportations, a sticking point for those on the Left, and they are preparing to be disappointed by the State of the Union address.
"We are sick and tired of seeing families torn apart and workers intimidated in their workplace," Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, said Monday. "This is a lose-lose situation for everybody. We believe 100 percent this is on the lap of the president, for the president to stand up and lead and act as the president, and declare a cease-fire on deportations right now."
Advocates are gearing up for an intensified focus on the issue, as new figures show a record number of immigrants were deported last year: 419,384. A total of 1.6 million immigrants were deported by the Obama administration between 2009 and 2012.
A December letter to Obama signed by 35 House Democrats called on Obama to extend the protections he provided to Dreamers in 2012, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to other undocumented immigrants. They also want to suspend deportation proceedings that began after Arizona enacted its stringent immigration law.
"The president has power, the legal authority, as he did with DACA, that gives him the authority to do much more than he's doing to hold back on these deportations that are going on," Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said.
"On the one hand, I expect him at the State of the Union to call for immigration reform. That is inconsistent with continuing to engage in deportations that are ripping families apart," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
Obama has argued that he cannot unilaterally halt deportations. Last year, he responded to an undocumented student in California who was yelling during his speech and calling on him to halt deportations.
"If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws through Congress, then I would do so," Obama said then. "But we are also a nation of laws—that's part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend that I can do something by violating our laws. What I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve."
Obama's remarks at the time speak to the small window of opportunity available in which to actually see comprehensive immigration reform pass through Congress during his presidency. Republicans are already sharply critical of his use of executive authority. Halting deportations would only further add to that criticism, and could make immigration reform an even heavier lift in the Republican-controlled House, where it is currently stalled.
That doesn't matter, some Democrats argue.
"We know the president is a strong advocate for immigration reform. He knows it's the right thing to do, and he's pushed hard to get this done. We can't wait for Speaker [John] Boehner to bring up an immigration bill while families are being torn apart," said Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada. "The president has said he has a pen and a phone, and in this case, he should use both."
This article appears in the January 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.