Immigration Backers Target 'Deporter in Chief' Obama

Immigration activists are not planning to let anyone off the hook.
The Deporter in Chief. Photographer: Leslie E. Kossoff-Pool/ Getty Images

Let's review some immigration news from the past two days. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, called President Barack Obama the "deporter in chief" because of the record number of deportations under his administration since 2009.

In the U.S. Senate, Senator Robert Menendez, the sole Hispanic member of the Democratic caucus, called on Obama to take executive action to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants who have strong family ties in the U.S. He was supported by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Harkin.

On a visit to Mexico City today, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, another Democrat, said Obama should reduce deportations.

Meanwhile, the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, called on Obama to stop deportations. Oh, and the group also labeled him the "deporter in chief."

You can almost identify a theme. Obama certainly did, declaring himself the "champion in chief" of comprehensive immigration reform at a town hall today with Hispanics.

Given rising frustrations among immigration reform groups, the activists' turn against Obama was inevitable. "If Republicans don't act, and soon, most in the immigration reform movement will press the president to take bold executive action," saidFrank Sharry executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration group in Washington.

Obama's discretion on deportations is a matter of dispute. But he definitely has some. "Courts have historically not required that the executive branch have specific statutory authorization for particular exercises of prosecutorial discretion," stated a December 2013 Congressional Research Service report, which goes on to note the "wide latitude" on enforcement that immigration officers are generally presumed to enjoy.

Marshall Fitz,director of immigration policy at the pro-immigration Center for American Policy, said that raising pressure on Obama is a way of indirectly raising pressure on House Republicans as well.

"Pushing the president on deportations while keeping the heat on House Republicans are mutually reinforcing and increase the likelihood of a substantial policy change this year," he wrote via e-mail. "By pressuring Republicans to put up or shut up, we push the legislative envelope in a way that creates space for the president to say that inaction is untenable, he has given Republicans every opportunity to act, but their refusal has compelled him to take aggressive action to limit the destruction created by our broken system. Likewise, pressuring the president on deportations and administrative relief will raise the heat on the White House to deliver, but also highlight to Republicans that if they fail to deliver legislation, the Left will get what it wants while their business stakeholders will get nothing."

In other words, by increasing public pressure on Obama to ease deportations, activists hope to present Republicans with a choice: Either pass comprehensive reform in a way that accommodates Republican concerns and constituencies, or stand by and watch Obama deliver unilateral relief to undocumented immigrants.

That's precisely what happened when Congress failed to pass a Dream Act for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Obama simply deferred deportations and provided Dream-eligible immigrants with a process for obtaining legal working papers. Republicans hated it. Hispanic voters -- more than 60,000 Hispanics become eligible to vote each month -- liked it. There's a theme there, too.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.