The charged subject of deportations has moved to the center of the immigration debate as President Obama has come under growing pressure from allies to review his administration’s policy.
Immigration reform has been a winning political issue for Democrats, but some pro-immigrant advocates have become impatient with stalled comprehensive immigration reform legislation on Capitol Hill.
The administration’s critics, meanwhile, have accused the president of not doing enough to enforce the law. They argue it has overstated the number of deportations.
Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, the director of civic engagement and immigration at National Council of La Raza, an ally of Obama’s on immigration reform, said the administration should do more to prioritize deportations to focus on national security and community safety concerns.
“While the permanent solution has to come from Congress and all the pressure will be on them to deliver that, there are things the administration can and should do,” she said. “They should use their discretion to the fullest extent allowable."
“They need to follow the guidance they have already put on the table and focus on national security and community safety,” she added. “Right now, unfortunately, deportations are continuing with people that fulfill neither of those categories.”
Simmering tension between the president and activists broke into the open during Obama’s recent trip to California.
A heckler called on Obama to take action during an immigration reform event in San Francisco Monday.
The young man, Ju Hong, standing on stage with the president yelled out, “You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country.”
“Actually, I don’t,” Obama shot back. “And that’s why we’re here.”
But part of the crowd sided with the heckler. “Stop deportations!” they chanted, putting the president in an awkward situation.
“It’s not simply a matter of us saying, 'We’re going to violate the law.' That’s not our tradition,” Obama said after finally regaining control.
Pro-immigrant activists argue the president has more authority over deportations than he acknowledged Monday.
“I think he overstates the case that he doesn’t have the authority,” Frank Sharry, founder of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, told The Christian Science Monitor.
“He may not have authority to give people a path to citizenship. Of course he doesn’t. But does he have the authority to have DHS [Department of Homeland Security] implement his priorities and reflect his values? Yes, and that’s not happening,” he said.
The issue of deportations has sparked debate among members of the coalition that supports comprehensive reform legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year.
Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, warned the president could sink the chances of passing legislation if he acted too aggressively to limit deportations.
“If we were to ask to stop deportations right now, that probably would kill our chances at comprehensive immigration reform and that’s only a temporary solution and doesn’t give any [legal] status to anybody,” he said. “So it’s a tough call.”
The president’s Republican critics in Congress say he hasn’t done enough to deport illegal immigrants. They point to unpublished statistics leaked from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in April showing that enforcement activity declined since the adoptions of new prosecutorial discretion policies in 2011.
“Contrary to popular myth, the administration has enormously scaled back deportations and now almost all the individuals deported are either convicted criminals, repeat immigration violators or national security threats,” said a GOP aide.
The aide noted that Hong, the heckler, is an illegal immigrant himself who was arrested in 2011 and was not deported. Instead, he was invited to stand on stage with the president of the United States.
“Most of the 12 million people here illegally are exempt for deportation under the administration’s polices,” said the aide.
According to a USA Today report published earlier this month, 96 percent of immigrants deported by ICE in 2012 fell into the agency’s priority definition, which includes national security threats, criminals and repeat violators of immigration law.