Slowing deportations could hurt chances for House immigration action

President Obama told law enforcement leaders from across the country that he wouldn’t sign an immigration overhaul bill unless it has “some pathway to citizenship.”
President Obama told law enforcement leaders from across the country that he wouldn’t sign an immigration overhaul bill unless it has “some pathway to citizenship.”
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

After some of President Obama’s closest political allies unexpectedly accused him of enforcing immigration laws too aggressively, the president ordered his aides this spring to find ways to ease the pace of deportations.

Now, some of those same advocacy groups are quietly urging the White House to slow that effort down, warning that ordering changes without congressional approval could spook House Republicans and kill any chances of a legislative fix this year.

House Speaker John A. Boehner’s staff has been drafting bills in a bid to offer a Republican response to the comprehensive immigration and border security bill that passed the Senate last June. Boehner has been unable to muster enough support to move any of his bills in the GOP-controlled House, however.


A White House move to scale back deportations would unite House Republicans in opposition and end the push for reform, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an advocacy group. “It would kill it right away.”

“Republicans are looking for an excuse not to do it,” agreed Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House.

Kelley said Obama should consider delaying the review of deportation procedures that he ordered in March, and give the House time to act. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is expected to complete the review and make his recommendations by June.

“The last thing we need is for the president to be doing things that can be interpreted as selectively enforcing the law,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who supports immigration reform, said in a telephone interview.

Diaz-Balart said the window for the House to act is before it adjourns for its August recess. “This is not the time to use unilateral action.”

White House aides say they are loath to order a delay, however, and Obama made it clear Tuesday that he wouldn’t sign a bill unless it contains a way for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally to obtain legal status and ultimately become citizens.


That’s anathema to many House Republicans, who call it amnesty.

Senior White House advisors say Obama won’t use administrative powers to order sweeping changes. Rather, they say, Homeland Security officials may move forward with smaller fixes while Obama presses House Republicans to either pass the Senate bill or come up with something he can accept in its stead.

In remarks to police chiefs Tuesday before a meeting at the White House, Obama said he’s wasn’t “hellbent” on getting House Republicans to agree to all the provisions of the Senate bill.

But he said he wouldn’t sign a bill unless it contains “a way for people to earn some pathway to citizenship.”

In the White House meeting, Johnson said he was considering limiting when immigration agents can contact local jails to ask them to hold undocumented immigrants, according to two police chiefs who attended the session.

Under a program called Secure Communities, immigration officials are automatically notified whenever someone without legal immigration status is booked. Federal agents can ask the jail to detain the person for possible deportation.

Johnson said he wanted to focus more on deporting violent criminals instead of people who have violated only immigration laws, the police chiefs said.


“What we heard today was a commitment to reboot and refocus on what is truly a threat — that is, criminals,” Art Acevedo, chief of police in Austin, Texas, said after the meeting.

Secure Communities has made some Austin residents less likely to report crimes for fear police will check immigration records of the victims or witnesses, Acevedo said.

This year, labor unions and Latino advocacy groups excoriated Obama as “deporter in chief” for not doing more to slow the deportation of immigrants who would qualify for legalization under the Senate bill. More than 2 million people have been deported since Obama took office.

Under Obama’s instructions to make deportation policy more humane, Homeland Security officials are drafting new guidelines to avoid unnecessarily separating families.

When Obama first took office in 2009, immigration agents were told to focus first on deporting convicted criminals, repeat immigration law violators and those who had recently crossed the border illegally.

Two 2011 directives from John Morton, then-director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are being revised to make them clearer and to make people convicted only of immigration violations a low priority for deportation, officials said.


Johnson also is seeking to reduce the number of people in detention. Congress requires ICE to keep 34,000 detention beds, but Johnson has said he doesn’t believe the law requires that all the beds be filled.