Immigration Advocates Juggle Fights Against Obama And GOP

President Barack Obama finishes talking about the situation in Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014, in the briefing room of the
President Barack Obama finishes talking about the situation in Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. The president said a referendum for Ukraine's Crimea region to separate and become part of Russia would violate international law. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON -- As Democrats and immigration advocates continue to pressure Republicans to pass immigration reform and push President Barack Obama to halt deportations, they face a tough question: does one effort hurt the other?

Advocates say the two struggles have to happen simultaneously, and that they can't stand by and watch as deportations continue at rapid rates while the House GOP drags its feet on reform. They argue procedural maneuvers may be necessary to force any action at all, even if Republicans balk at them.

But they're also up against some Republicans who are insistent that Obama can't be trusted to enforce immigration law -- despite record deportations -- and that Democrats are playing politics. The reform advocates' biggest challenge, then, is juggling the efforts to pressure both Obama and House Republicans without giving the GOP ammunition to avoid reform -- or feeling like they're letting either side off the hook.

"It is just plain dishonest for Republicans to say they can’t consider immigration reform because they don’t trust President Obama to enforce the law," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Friday on a call with reporters hosted by pro-reform group America's Voice. "And it is just plain dishonest for President Obama to say his hands are tied and there is nothing more he can do under the current law with regards to prosecutorial discretion. I think we need to confront both flavors of dishonesty, especially when so many families are being destroyed while politicians play politics."

Democrats are currently focusing on a few strategies related to immigration reform. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated Tuesday that Democrats will soon pursue a procedural maneuver called a discharge petition to bring a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor for a vote. For now, it doesn't look likely that they'll get the Republican signatures necessary, since even GOP supporters of the bill said they wouldn't sign a discharge petition. But the idea is that it could put pressure on House Republicans who so far have announced principles on immigration reform but not made many movements.

At the same time, Democrats and reform advocates are urging the president to suspend some deportations. If previous removal rates continue, deportations are nearing the 2 million mark during Obama's presidency -- after hitting a record yearly high of nearly 410,000 removals in the 2012 fiscal year. National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía, an ally of Obama's on immigration, made waves during a speech Tuesday when she called the president the "deporter-in-chief."

The call to slow deportations has been around for years -- and especially loud in recent months -- and it seems to be wearing on the White House. Politico reported that administration officials called Murguía after her speech to express disappointment at the "deporter-in-chief" claim. Obama defended himself on Thursday during a town hall-style meeting with Latinos, calling himself the "champion-in chief of comprehensive immigration reform" and said he was "constrained" in what he was able to do until Congress addressed the issue with legislation.

"The reason you have deportations taking place is that Congress says you have to enforce these laws," Obama said at the event on Thursday. "I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any other laws on the books."

Gutierrez, who has long been critical of Obama on deportations and called him the "deporter-in-chief" as recently as Wednesday, said on Friday that title and "champion-in-chief" aren't mutually exclusive.

"When I called the president the deporter-in-chief and Janet [Murguía] and many others have done the same, that is not contradictory with the president being the champion-in-chief," Gutierrez said on the America's Voice call. "Look, I want President Obama to be the bill-signer-in-chief, and I think we are all pushing in the same direction."

Murguía declined on the same call to repeat her "deporter-in-chief" line -- "I think I've made my point," she said when asked if she'd use the term again -- but kept up the argument that the president can and should slow deportations.

Politically, halting deportations could be catastrophic for reform, Republicans have argued. Three of the four Republicans who drafted the Senate immigration bill said in February that suspending deportations would be a death knell for reform. GOP leadership has already laid down the framework to skip immigration reform by blaming Obama. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it might not happen this year because of "widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws."

A House Republican who supports reform said although suspending deportations would be a positive thing for families, there could be serious implications from the members who are genuinely skeptical of the president on immigration rather than just using it as an excuse for inaction.

"I would be torn. On the one side, happy that you're going to stop deporting parents of American kids," the member said, requesting anonymity to speak more freely. "On the other hand, it would also be the nail in the coffin of immigration reform legislation."

Murguía rejected the idea that suspending deportations would give fuel to Republicans who say Obama doesn't want to enforce the law. Instead, she argued their push against deportations could give more attention to the fact that record numbers of people are already being deported.

"We're tired of the finger pointing, and we're going to push on both fronts and put pressure on both fronts to do more," she said. "We're going to make it very clear to the House Republicans that we see through this strategy of theirs and that we don't accept it."

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