Obama: I Won’t Make Immigration Fixes Without Congress

The president could act, but he won't, he tells Telemundo.

By Seth Freed Wessler Sep 24, 2010

Following the defeat of the DREAM act earlier this week, President Obama appeared on Telemundo Wednesday to talk about immigration reform. In the interview, the president was asked whether, in lieu of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he would use administrative powers to roll back the abuses of the immigration system. President Obama said he would not. 

"You know, it is a very difficult thing to do administratively," Obama demurred.

The statement was a peculiar one, because halting the policy of mass deportation would actually be a a terribly easy thing to do administratively. No law requires the Department of Homeland Security to pursue record-breaking levels of deportation, as it is doing now. In fact, the administration could in an instant plug the deportation pipeline if it so chose.

But of course the president was not speaking in practical terms; he was speaking about politics. "What we don’t want to do is give an excuse to the opposition to say, ‘Obama’s trying to do an end-run around Congress,’ " he said.

Yet, even without such executive action, Republicans are refusing to participate in any reform beyond added enforcement.

The comprehensive immigration reform strategy adopted by the White House and leading congressional Democrats has intentionally offered up increased border and internal immigration enforcement as a means of garnering GOP support for a path to citizenship. That tact appears to have failed and comprehensive immigration reform will not become law this year. It looks increasingly as if the same is true of the DREAM Act. The president said as much in his Telemundo interview.

With no path to citizenship, the White House’s steadfast commitment to iron-fisted enforcement–including the allocation of billions of dollars for border militarization and a policy of mass deportation–is harder to justify.

Advocates are calling on the administration to halt the deportations and roll back the devolution of immigration policy enacted by the Bush Administration. The Secure Communities program, which checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a local jail, has become a target of local and national campaigns. The program is responsible for deportation of tens of thousands of people with no criminal convictions at all or only minor violations.

In the face of advocate demands for greater transparency, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced last week that the Secure Communities program is optional–that local jails are not required to participate. The news sets up advocates to demand their localities refuse to participate.

More broadly, some D.C. advocates are beginning to push the administration to rescind a Bush-era legal memo that granted local police the right to enforce immigration law. Deepak Bhragava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a Beltway advocacy organization, says his group is "pressing Obama hard to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants and eliminate inherent authority for local enforcement of immigration law."

With no form of legalization likely to pass any time soon, Obama’s explicit refusal to use administrative action to fix the broken immigration enforcement system pressure may continue to mount for the administration to act. It’s not clear how long the President can continue to offer only the stick, with no carrot at all.