Obama Sidesteps Deportation Question

November 26, 2013

While immigration reform has little chance of passing in the 113th Congress, President Obama has given the issue consistent attention. Less than a year after his election, he ended the travel and immigration ban for HIV positive foreign nationals (with an assist from the Bush administration). Last year, he issued a memorandum allowing for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And despite the long odds (and needless distractions), he has consistently pushed for passage of comprehensive immigration reform, most recently yesterday at a San Francisco rally. However, his record on immigration remains mixed, as was highlighted when his speech was interrupted by anti-deportation activists:

Under the Obama administration, there have been more deportations per month than under any previous president. The “heckler” in the above video is asking President Obama to halt these deportations, to which the President responds that “actually, [he] can’t.” Obama explains that even though he is President, he can’t just violate or ignore the laws on the books. Those laws currently require that certain people get deported. President Obama doesn’t like those laws, and he’s trying to change them, but he needs our help to do so, so if the heckler would kindly stop yelling and get to work lobbying and mobilizing for comprehensive immigration reform, that would be great. 

This is a disingenuous response. While he could not stop all deportations under current law, as leader of the executive branch President Obama could direct relevant agencies to deprioritize deportations, or to only focus on deportations of violent criminals. That would cause deportations to slow even without new legislation. People usually do what their boss tells them to do, even if the directive doesn’t carry the force of law.

What’s more, President Obama knows that Republican leadership has no incentive to allow a vote on comprehensive immigration reform before the 2014 elections. And that’s what Obama’s constant attention to immigration reform is really about: the 2014 elections. The best chance immigration reform has of passing during his administration is if Democrats make significant gains in next year’s midterm elections. And the immigration reform coalition might represent the best hope Democrats have of making those needed gains. Immigration reform brings together the sort of coalition that the Democratic party has long needed: big business money combined with real grassroots activism. If it can remain cohesive and motivated for another year, it could be the Democratic answer to the Tea Party. This is why Obama gives the issue so much attention, even while the chances for short-term success remain bleak. He isn’t holding immigration rallies so much as campaign rallies. His deportation record isn’t on-message with the campaign, so he’s evasive about it. 

Meanwhile, conservative media outlets are reporting that deportations have actually slowed dramatically in 2013, though this may or may not be a function of administration policy. 

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 15, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert).

 


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