Even as Republicans cite their distrust of President Obama as the reason immigration reform has stalled, immigrants' rights groups are calling on him to up the ante, cut out Congress altogether and use his executive authority to grant more relief for immigrants.
While the House Judiciary Committee prepared for a Wednesday meeting to debate reining in what Republicans have called the president's abuse of his executive authority, immigration reform groups said Obama hasn't gone far enough on immigration. The few measures he has issued, the groups said, haven't helped curb record-setting deportation numbers, and they urged the president to use his authority to circumvent congressional stalling and implement reforms he has promised.
Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said there is no way to end the gridlock, so Obama should just act. Republicans have created a “trust” issue, he added, to please a vocal minority in their party.
“We know the Republicans are saying Obama is not enforcing the law, which puts him in a bind,” he said. “We don’t think he should wait [to act]. There are things that he can even do today to make things fairer."
Leading up to the Judiciary Committee meeting, the Campaign for an Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration Overhaul, a pro-reform group, released recent figures that it said show that Obama has been anything but soft on immigration. In 2012, the administration spent about $18 billion on immigration enforcement, more than the combined allottment for the FBI, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the Migration Policy Institute. CAMBIO also cited Obama's record-setting annual average of about 400,000 deportations.
During the hearing, however, Republicans said the changes to immigration law were among a series of moves they considered presidential overreaches.
“The Obama Administration has ignored laws, failed to enforce laws, undermined laws, and changed laws by executive orders and administrative actions. These include laws covering health care, immigration, marriage, drugs, and welfare requirements,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said in a statement. Smith acknowledged that previous presidents used executive authority more, but never in broad strokes that “stretch the Constitution to its breaking point.”
In 2011, Obama instructed John Morton, then the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to issue guidelines asking federal prosecutors to use discretion when determining which undocumented immigrants to place in deportation proceedings. Conditions in immigrants' home countries, the circumstances of their arrival and whether they came here as a child could be taken into account, the memo said.
A year later, the administration offered deferred action to undocumented immigrants 30 or younger, giving qualified applicants work permits and two-year relief from deportation proceedings.
Republicans were critical of those moves, but in January, House GOP leaders laid out their principles on immigration reform, sparking hope among reformers that Congress might act on the issue. Hope fizzled, though, after GOP leaders in February said Obama’s overreach gave them pause.
Now, immigration reformers say, the only way to move forward is for Obama to act without Congress.
The presidential actions Obama has taken, they say, haven’t been enough.
The People Improving Communities Through Organizing Campaign for Citizenship last week alleged that prosecutorial discretion is being underused. Since 2012, less than 10 percent of immigration cases closed nationally were settled because of discretionary measures, according to data collected and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. In Texas courts, the figures were even lower. The group also demanded that the president broaden the scope of deferred action to allow more undocumented immigrants to qualify for the program.
“In all of these cases, what we’ve had to do is organize our congregations and our communities to stop these deportations of undocumented immigrants with no criminal history and strong family ties,” Richard Morales, the detention prevention coordinator for PICO’s Campaign for Citizenship, said in a statement. “If it weren’t for the community support, all of these people would be deported and ripped away from their family.”
In other cases, immigration attorneys say, the president’s timing has been off.
Earlier this month, the administration changed the federal register regarding applicants seeking entry to the U.S. whose cases have been tied up for years because of a federal law that bars entry to people suspected of giving material support to terrorists groups. The change stopped the exclusion of applicants whose support is considered insignificant or unintentional.
“You have this group, [thousands] of people who are sitting in the pipeline, some for many years, because their cases are just frozen,” he said. “Maybe they gave a Band-Aid to a terrorist 10 years ago or a sip of water, something stupid. So it’s a regulation that needed to happen.”
The law applies to applicants from all countries, and each person affected by the rule change will still undergo a grueling background check, he added. But what some considered a minor tweak was derided by the president’s opponents.
“We are a nation of laws, and the Executive Branch should not be allowed to unilaterally suspend our immigration laws to provide benefits to those who have supported terrorists,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.
Kowalski said the reaction was overblown, but he said the president might have waited before further angering Republicans.
“Politically, it wasn’t necessarily the best thing. Maybe the best thing to do would be to postpone this, keep this in the hopper and wait until after the general election” to avoid driving a deeper wedge between Democrats and Republicans, he said.
While reform proponents' hope that Congress will act soon is fading, it is not gone. On Wednesday, 19 evangelical and Catholic organizations, including the diocese of Brownsville, wrote congressional leaders, pleading with them to consider legislation.
“We are hopeful for reform legislation that respects the God-given dignity of every person, protects family unity, respects the rule of law, guarantees the integrity of our national borders, ensures fairness for taxpayers, and makes it possible for undocumented immigrants who meet the requirements to become citizens if they desire,” they wrote.