WASHINGTON -- Twenty-nine House Democratic members sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Thursday calling for him to halt deportations, arguing that it would help, not hurt, the debate over immigration reform by bringing in new voices.
"This is not to abandon comprehensive immigration reform for executive action, this is to say that if you truly care -- and we all do -- about the comfort, the well-being and the security of millions of families across this country, then we have to explore all options," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said at a press conference announcing the letter.
Calls for the administration to expand its deferred action policies have grown louder in recent months as deportations are expected to hit the 2 million mark during Obama's presidency, should they continue at the same rate as last year. Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he still wants to pursue immigration reform -- and gave advocates a hopeful sign by hiring pro-reform policy expert Rebecca Tallent -- no votes on the issue are expected this year.
Democrats have called for Boehner to allow a vote on H.R.15, a comprehensive reform bill based on previously-passed Senate legislation and a border security measure already approved by the House Homeland Security Committee. Three Republicans signed on to that measure in October, and a strong majority of Democrats support it.
"We are just one person away from comprehensive immigration reform," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said at the press conference, referring to Boehner. "Just one person."
But in the meantime, the House members say Obama must take action on deportations. The members who signed on to the letter said there are "543 faith-based, labor, neighborhood, legal, and civil rights organizations, including the AFL-CIO, MALDEF, United We Dream, and NDLON," that also support such a proposal.
Obama has expanded the use of prosecutorial discretion by encouraging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to pursue undocumented immigrants considered high priority, such as criminals and repeat offenders, while giving stays of removal to those deemed low-priority. Obama also created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives a more formal reprieve from deportation to so-called Dreamers, undocumented young people who entered the U.S. as children.
Advocates argue that Obama could expand discretion and deferred action policies to others as well. The members wrote that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has allowed Dreamers more ability to share their stories and shift the debate on immigration reform. Expanding that policy, therefore, would encourage others to come forward to put a human face to the need for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"[T]he specter of deportation removes the human and grounding element in any political discussion -- those individuals who are most directly impacted," the members wrote. "The senseless opposition that neither reflects the public will, nor the moral responsibility we hold, should not allow us to prolong the needless suffering of those who could so soon have their place in our society fully recognized. In fact, taking a strong step toward granting relief would move us in the direction of where the immigration debate rightfully should start, with the legalization of 11 million men and women who call the United States their home."
Obama has been pressed on the issue before, and argued that he doesn't have the power to expand the deferred action policy more broadly. Reform advocate Ju Hong interrupted the president's speech on immigration last month, saying Obama has the power to stop deportations. "Actually, I don't," the president replied.
"What you need to know, when I'm speaking as president of the United States and I come to this community, is that if in fact I could solve all of these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so," Obama said. "But we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition."
Republicans have warned that Obama would prove to them that he's untrustworthy on immigration if he suspended deportations, making it impossible for them to work with him. Earlier Thursday, Boehner said it is Obama's duty to enforce current laws on immigration.
"The president has an obligation just like I do -- and we take an oath -- to uphold and defend the laws of the United States," he told reporters. "And if the law is clear that people who have violated the law, they should receive the punishment that's outlined in the law."
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) had some harsh words for Republicans who aren't moving on immigration reform but say Obama acting on his own would be a reason for them to block it.
"Act like you're in charge and do something," Gutierrez said at the Democrats' press conference, referring to House Republicans. "[Don't] say that if he takes action, that somehow you're going to be angry and not do anything. You're not going to do anything, and if he does something, you're not going to do anything. It sounds to me like you don't want to do anything."
Read the full letter:
Dear Mr. President,
The undersigned Members of Congress respectfully request that you suspend any further deportations and expand the successful deferred action program to all those who would be potential citizens under immigration reform.
We stand by the 543 faith-based, labor, neighborhood, legal, and civil rights organizations, including the AFL-CIO, MALDEF, United We Dream, and NDLON that support this proposal, and agree that this is the best way to advance the path to citizenship for undocumented individuals across the country.
We appreciate your commitment to reforming our nation’s broken immigration policies for the benefit of all. In the context of the intransigence of a small number of legislators that are willing to hold the legislation hostage unless we pass a series of incredibly extreme proposals, a cessation of the deportation of the 1,100 potential citizens expelled daily would do a great deal to set the parameters of the conversation.
Let us not take these policies lightly. Every deportation of a father, a sister, or a neighbor tears at our social consciousness; every unnecessary raid and detention seriously threatens the fabric of civil liberties we swore to uphold. We are talking about American families and American communities. Criminalizing American families or giving local law enforcement the responsibility to choose who stays and who goes, is not the right option.
Our efforts in Congress will only be helped by the sensible and moral step of stopping deportations.
As we have seen with deferred action for childhood arrivals, such relief brings with it the benefit of active participation in the debate by undocumented people themselves. When their stories are known and voices are heard, we have witnessed how the debate shifts. The fear and xenophobia that block progress only shrink in the display of their courage. But left unchecked, the threat of deportations will prevent so many from coming forward and contributing to the national conversation. Instead, the specter of deportation removes the human and grounding element in any political discussion -- those individuals who are most directly impacted.
The senseless opposition that neither reflects the public will, nor the moral responsibility we hold, should not allow us to prolong the needless suffering of those who could so soon have their place in our society fully recognized. In fact, taking a strong step toward granting relief would move us in the direction of where the immigration debate rightfully should start, with the legalization of eleven million men and women who call the United States their home.
As the debate proceeds, it is necessary to expand the protections of our future citizens that were established by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and grant it to the family and neighbors and all of those who have made their lives here but are yet to be fully recognized.
We cannot continue to witness potential citizens in our districts go through the anguish of deportation when legalization could be just around the corner for them. We look to you to firmly contribute to advancing inclusion for immigrants by suspending deportations and expanding DACA.
Raúl M. Grijalva
Alcee L. Hastings
Bobby L. Rush