Photo: ESTHER Y. LEE
On Thursday evening, President Barack Obama (D) told three top members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he would ask the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review options to achieve a “more humane” deportation policy.
After the President met with House Democrats Reps. Xaxier Becerra (CA), Luis Gutierrez (IL), and Ruben Hinojosa (TX), the White House released a statement that read in part, “The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”
Obama has long maintained that exempting too many deportations or even halting all deportations unilaterally “would be difficult to defend legally,” and that it is up to Congress to change the law. But with immigration reform stalled, and deportations at a record high, advocates have ratcheted up calls for administrative action.
The Congressional Hispanic Congress is in the early stages of writing a resolution that calls for the President to use “all legal means” to suspend, delay or stop deportations of immigrants if the removal would “have an adverse impact on the United States,” according to a draft obtained by Politico Thursday.
It’s unclear what action the administration will take, but there are some measure that can reduce overall deportations quotas, like letting immigrants from countries “facing crises or violence” qualify for Temporary Protected Status (which would give some immigrants work and residence permits), as Raul Reyes of NBC Latino pointed out. The Department of Homeland Security could also choose not to issue detainer requests, also known as immigration holds, for local or state enforcement officials to detain and keep a suspected undocumented immigrant in custody for federal immigration officials to later pick up. That move could supersede the federal Secure Communities Program, which allows local and state jails to hold, and possibly deport, undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours.
Currently, immigration officials are instructed to avert deporting those individuals who have not committed serious offenses, undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, and undocumented family members of military personnel. But those officials retain what is known as “prosecutorial discretion” to make individuals calls about whether or not to pursue deportation.
Obama extended that prosecutorial discretion to an entire class of immigrants as “an act of administrative convenience” to the government which gives some cases lower priority, in what is known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Through DACA, the Obama administration grants reprieve and work authorization to some undocumented immigrants who have met certain criteria between the ages of 15 to 31, in two-year increments. Some advocates have called for him to extend that program to other “discrete classes” of immigrants.
Immigration advocates have long kept some pressure on the President to end deportations, but they have always mainly targeted House Republicans to seek a permanent solution. But the pivot in tactic came into sharp focus when the President was blindsided by an undocumented immigrant, who stood behind him to protest deportation policies during a nationally-televised immigration speech last fall. Since then, pro-immigration groups like the AFL-CIO, National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), and groups led by undocumented immigrants (like United We Dream and the DREAM Action Coalition) have all pressured the President to expand on the DACA program.
A statement released by DREAM Action Coalition, which has criticized the Obama administration for deporting nearly two million immigrants, expressed cautious optimism and hoped that the President would extend deferred action to groups, “including those that would be covered under the Senate immigration bill; eliminate programs that will prohibit localities to enforce immigration; eliminate the Secure communities program; allow Dreamers into the military.”
“It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the president,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said in a press release Thursday evening responding to Obama’s announcement.
The President has also felt intense heat by allies and other members of his own party to halt deportations of low-priority, undocumented immigrants. Last Tuesday, Janet Murguia, President of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) — an influential Latino advocacy group — called Obama the “deporter-in-chief” for the first time. White House senior officials called her to say that the President was “very disappointed” in her characterization. Since then, even Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — members of the Senate Gang of Eight –separately called on the Obama administration to suspend the deportation of immigrants who have committed low-level crimes.
Any administrative move would likely not go over well with House Republicans who — after saying that they distrust the President to implement existing laws — passed two measures Thursday that undercut efforts to expand administrative relief for DACA recipients.