WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama on Thursday said he was powerless to stop mass expulsions of illegal immigrants, which prompted one Latino advocacy group to brand him “deporter in chief.”
The president said Congress was requiring him to enforce existing immigration laws while balking at passing a comprehensive bill that would offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
“I am constrained in terms of what I am able to do,” Obama said.
“The reason why these deportations are taking place is that Congress said ‘you have to enforce these laws’”
“I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books.”
In mitigation, Obama said he had ordered government agents to give priority to deportations of those involved in illegal activity and gangs — and had used executive power to shield undocumented young people with illegal status who have known no home other than the United States.
“What I have done is to use my prosecutorial discretion,” Obama said.
The National Council of La Raza, America’s largest Latino advocacy organization, this week broke with the president over the deportation issue.
“Any day now, this administration will reach the two million mark for deportations,” said NCLR CEO Janet Murguia.
“It is a staggering number that far outstrips that of any of (Obama’s) predecessors, and it leaves behind a wake of devastation for families across America.
“We respectfully disagree with the president on his inability to stop unnecessary deportations. He does have the power to stop this.”
Obama said the deportation issue was one of the reasons why it was so important to get comprehensive immigration reform — already passed by the Senate — through the House of Representatives.
“I am the champion in chief of comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said.
The president also defended his record on issues important to the Latino community, which voted twice overwhelmingly to send him to the White House.
He said for instance that he had kept many Latino families out of poverty during the recession raging when he came to office in 2009.
“I think the community understands that I have got their back,” Obama said.
The president was appearing at a town hall-style meeting in Washington designed to showcase his health reform law for the Latino community.
The president assured his audience that no information from people signing up for health plans under the law would be passed to immigration authorities who might use it to deport illegal immigrants from a mixed status family.
The Senate immigration bill, passed last year, offers a path to eventual citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.
It includes tighter border monitoring, an overhauled work visa program and other key reforms.
But many observers believe it is such a tough vote for many Republicans that it has no chance of passing the House before mid-term elections in November.