WASHINGTON – With immigration legislation stalled in Congress, advocates are intensifying pressure on the Obama administration to act unilaterally to stop deportations or grant legal status to some of the 11 million people now living in the U.S. illegally.
Activists are stepping up acts of civil disobedience like one last month in Phoenix, where they blocked a bus full of immigrant detainees. And labor leaders plan to press the issue with a top White House official in an upcoming meeting.
Many advocates continue to hold out hope for a legislative solution even as some shift their focus to the White House.
“If Congress doesn’t move, the president has a duty to act,” said Ana Avendano, director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO. “Just because the Republicans have buried their heads in the sand doesn’t mean that immigrant communities aren’t feeling the sting of constant deportations.”
The possibility of executive action is inflaming Republican suspicions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others warn that President Barack Obama will be tempted to act on his own to legalize some or all of the people now living in the country illegally.
“I think that’s actually what Obama wants to do. I think he wants Congress not to pass something so he can do it on his own and he can take credit for it,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said in an interview. “He needs to be very careful, though, because he continues to flout the law, and he continues to do things that are beyond his authority. And at some point, Congress is going to have enough.”
The administration acted on its own a year ago to change policy and suspend deportations of some immigrants brought illegally into the country as children. More than 450,000 of them have benefited so far.
White House officials refuse to publicly entertain any discussion of taking further steps. “The only way to bring 11 million undocumented individuals out of the shadow economy is for Congress to pass common-sense reform with an earned path to citizenship. That’s it. Full stop,” said White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne.
When asked in interviews about the high number of deportations under his administration, Obama has sought to put the onus on Congress. “I’m not a king,” he told Telemundo earlier this year.
Advocates say administration officials are no more receptive in private, although Cecilia Munoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, has agreed to meet with labor leaders on the issue, something that’s in the process of being scheduled, according to one union official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private gathering.
The issue arises against the backdrop of an uncertain outlook in Congress for comprehensive immigration legislation offering eventual citizenship to those already in the country illegally.
Far-reaching legislation with new visa and workplace enforcement programs and billions for border security — along with a path to citizenship for millions — passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in June, but it has been stalled in the GOP-led House ever since.
Congress’ just-completed August recess did little to create momentum for the House to act, despite efforts by advocates and a notable absence of anti-immigrant protests. Washington’s recent focus on Syria seemed to further sideline the issue. Also, lawmakers will be occupied in coming weeks with finding ways to pass bills to keep the government running when money runs out on Sept. 30 and raising the ceiling on the federal debt.
Immigrant communities, meanwhile, are increasingly restive over the large number of deportations under the Obama administration — close to 400,000 annually in recent years, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Activists say Obama should halt deportations of immigrants who would be eligible for eventual citizenship under the Senate immigration bill, which the White House supports.
“There’s a clear contradiction in the president’s position right now,” said Chris Newman, legal director at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “He’s saying either the House Republicans will come around on the path to citizenship, or I’ll be forced to keep deporting people. And that’s an untenable position.”
Despite their emphasis on a legislative solution, administration officials have taken small steps recently to provide relief to certain groups of immigrants. A directive by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month advised agents to keep enforcement actions from unnecessarily impacting parents and primary caregivers.
An internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services memo from 2010 showed that officials were contemplating broader actions, including deferring deportations and allowing work authorizations for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally — without any action by Congress.
The memo listed a number of “pros” arguing for that approach. “A bold administrative program would transform the political landscape by using administrative measures to sidestep the current state of congressional gridlock and inertia,” it said.
However, it noted even more “cons.”
“Opponents of the registration program will characterize it as ‘amnesty’,” and the Homeland Security secretary would “face criticism that she is abdicating her charge to enforce the immigration laws.”
An administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the memo publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was not directed by the White House and has no bearing on the current immigration debate.
That’s not stopping immigrant advocates from gaming out scenarios the administration could pursue, such as granting legal status to targeted groups of immigrants, perhaps to people who have been in the country for a long time or whose children are U.S. citizens.
“It’s very clear that from advocates’ perspective, if legislation fails, we definitely will need to start pressuring the administration to act,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.