President Obama dismissed criticism Thursday from immigration advocates who called him the "deporter-in-chief" and instead declared himself the "champion-in-chief" of comprehensive immigration reform.
At a town hall meeting with Latinos at the Newseum, Obama faced tough questions about his record on deportations of undocumented immigrants, which this month is set to top 2 million since he took office.
"Since I ran for president, I've pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, and I will continue to push," Obama said. "I am the champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform. But until Congress passes new laws, I am constrained in what I am able to do."
This week, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, pushed the administration to suspend deportations for most immigrants and used the term "deporter-in-chief" to describe Obama's record.
Told during the Newseum event that his reputation has been "tarnished" by the deportations, Obama defended his record on Latino issues such as affordable housing and immigration.
"I would challenge the premise," Obama said. "I think the community understands that I've got their back and I'm fighting for them. Does that mean there will not be some frustrations? Of course not. But that's true of everybody in the population. If something goes wrong, they say, 'Why hasn't Obama done something on that?'"
La Raza was the latest in a growing number of immigrant rights groups that have pushed the White House to halt deportations as Congress weighs an overhaul of border control laws. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last June, but House Republicans have said they will not support the plan.
In 2012, Obama suspended deportations for young people brought to the country illegally as children, but he has declined to expand that program.
"The reason you have deportations taking place is that Congress says you have to enforce these laws," Obama said at the Newseum. "I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any other laws on the books."
Obama, who was at the Newseum to push uninsured Latinos to sign up for health care, pledged that the government will not use information of the people who sign up to go after relatives who might be undocumented.
"Of course, I understand the fear," Obama said. But he added: "For everyone in a mixed [immigration status] family, there's no sharing of data from the health care plan to immigration services."