The One Thing the Left Has No Problem Criticizing Obama Over

Immigration advocates are preparing to be disappointed by the State of the Union.

Undocumented Guatemalan immigrants are searched before boarding a deportation flight to Guatemala City, Guatemala at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on June 24, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Jan. 27, 2014, 11:10 a.m.

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.”

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