WASHINGTON - Seeking to pacify frustrated immigration advocates, President Barack Obama is directing the government to find more humane ways to handle deportation for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, the White House said Thursday.
With prospects for an immigration overhaul in Congress appearing ever dimmer, immigration advocates have been ramping up pressure on Obama to halt all deportations - a step the president has insisted he can't take by himself. By announcing he's open to changing how the U.S. enforces its current laws, Obama is signaling he may be growing more inclined to test the limits of his authority in the face of congressional inaction.
Obama's announcement came Thursday in a meeting with three Latino lawmakers who are seeking ways to resuscitate an immigration overhaul despite resistance from Republicans and election-year politics that have confounded their efforts. The White House said Obama told the lawmakers - all Democrats - that he's deeply concerned about the pain that families suffer when they are separated due to a broken immigration system.
"He told the members that he has asked Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to do an inventory of the department's current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law," the White House said in a statement.
Without new laws, it's unclear what Obama can do on his own. As recently as last week, Obama said he already had "stretched my administrative capacity very far" when he issued an executive order in 2012 removing the threat of deportation for children brought to the U.S. illegally.
"I cannot ignore those laws any more than I could ignore any of the other laws that are on the books," Obama said in a virtual town hall with Spanish-language media outlets.
White House officials declined to answer questions Thursday about what the government could do to make deportation more humane or the timeline for Johnson to report back to the president. But immigration activists will likely call for Obama to halt deportations for parents of children brought to the U.S. illegally, among other steps.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who represents a heavily Latino district in Illinois, said after the Oval Office meeting that he will present options to Johnson next week, and then the secretary will meet with the entire Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss those and other options.
"It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the president," said Gutierrez, who traditionally has been an Obama ally but recently has grown critical of Obama for doing too little.
Obama still intends to pressure Republicans to pass an immigration overhaul, the White House said - a sentiment echoed by Gutierrez and others in the Hispanic caucus. To that end, Obama was planning to meet Friday with organizations working to pass bipartisan immigration legislation.
Ironically, by moving to ease deportation practices now, Obama may make the task of getting that overhaul through Congress even tougher. Republicans have already insisted they are reluctant to rewrite immigration laws out of concern that Obama will not dutifully enforce them, citing the broad latitude he has granted himself in implementing his health care law.
A top second-term priority for Obama, immigration appeared to be an area of potential bipartisan agreement coming out of the 2012 election, in which Republicans lost the Hispanic vote by a wide margin. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June with strong bipartisan support that would create a pathway for citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, tighten border security, and establish new visa and enforcement programs.
But the measure stalled in the House, despite calls for lawmakers to act from Republican leaders, business groups, religious organizations and labor. Although House Republicans said they wanted to pursue their own, piecemeal approach, Speaker John Boehner has acknowledged that stands little chance of happening this year, as Congress becomes consumed with the looming midterm elections.
Refusing to wait any longer, immigration groups have grown increasingly critical of Obama, lambasting him in a stark departure from the broad support he long has enjoyed from Latinos generally. While Congress dawdles, Obama has stringently enforced the same immigration laws he insists must be fixed, advocates argue.
Under Obama's leadership, almost 2 million people have been removed from the U.S.
"For us, this president has been the deporter in chief," Janet Murguia, who heads the National Council of La Raza, said in a recent speech.
Pablo Alvarado, who heads the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said after Thursday's announcement that halting deportations is "now a consensus position." He said Obama now has no excuse to "continue his unjust deportation policy" and mustn't let immigrants fall victim to a Congress that is "held hostage by a vigilante wing of the Republican Party."
"Relief delayed is relief denied," Alvarado said.