Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had just begun her remarks to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration when the first protester leapt to his feet.
“You have destroyed our community,” he shouted. Others in the audience joined him, chanting, “Stop the deportations!”
The anger at President Obama’s deportation policies among some of his otherwise most ardent allies could pose a surprising complication in coming weeks to the delicate negotiations to overhaul the nation’s immigration system that are now underway.
The Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any administration in history, provoking deep political tensions that could narrow the president’s ability to make concessions Republicans will probably demand as part of a comprehensive deal.
Latinos are widely credited with helping Obama win reelection in November, and there is high optimism among advocates about the prospects for immigration changes championed by the president.
But the deep resentment over deportations on display at the Senate hearing last week has bubbled up repeatedly as Obama and his allies have tried to devise a coordinated strategy to push an immigration bill through Congress.
In a private meeting with Obama at the White House earlier this month, officials with the nation’s leading immigration groups confronted the him directly.
One advocate told Obama that the Hispanic community was “demoralized” by ongoing deportations, said several participants who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the off-the-
Most of the attention on the possible pitfalls ahead for the immigration effort have focused on the likelihood that Republicans will balk at legislation that provides a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
But the continued tension between Obama and immigrant groups could inject a different set of difficulties for the White House.
“In a sense, the president is on borrowed time,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Newman said that for many immigrants, Obama’s policies were clearly preferable to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but “that doesn’t erase the fact that there is tremendous apprehension about the dissonance between the president’s rhetoric and his policies.”
Under Obama, about 400,000 illegal immigrants have been deported each year, a record rate. Administration officials contend the high numbers are linked to a massive expansion of resources devoted to immigration enforcement appropriated by Congress before Obama took office.
Administration officials say they have put in place policies that better prioritize deportation efforts, focusing on immigrants who have committed serious crimes, people who just recently crossed the border and others who had been caught repeatedly violating immigration laws.
Napolitano told senators last week that 55 percent of those removed in 2012 had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors and 96 percent fell within one of the agency’s priority categories.
And in the summer, Obama announced his administration would stop deporting many young adults who were brought to the country illegally as children and had committed no other crimes, a move that came partly in response to years of complaints from his immigrant supporters.
“This is something I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency,” Obama told an activist who asked during a Google chat last week what he would do to stop families from being split by deportations while the congressional debate inches forward.
“The problem is that, you know, I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed. And Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system,” he said.
“We’ve kind of stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can,” he added. “That’s why making sure that we get comprehensive immigration reform done is so important.”
Asked once again in an interview Wednesday with the San Antonio Univision affiliate about the deportations, Obama offered a blunt answer: “At this point, I need Congress to act.”
A new Pew Research/USA Today poll shows that in the wake of his recent legislative efforts, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos is at 73 percent, up from 48 percent in late 2011 amid disillusionment at the pace of progress toward legal change.
Still, the continued wariness about deportations may help explain the impatience Obama has telegraphed to Congress about the need for quick action on changes to immigration laws.
Members of a bipartisan group of eight senators have been working on an immigration bill that they hope to submit for hearings in March. But Obama has repeatedly insisted that if their efforts drag, he will submit his own bill to Congress.
The seriousness of that pledge was demonstrated last weekend, as a draft of Obama’s backup bill — including a somewhat easier path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants than what the Senate group has discussed — was leaked to USA Today. Republicans complained that the emergence of the White House plan made the bipartisan talks more difficult.
At the same time, in the delicate dance of Washington negotiations, the public pressure from immigrants could also help Democrats win what they consider a better deal, by providing a pointed reminder to Republicans more interested in the demands of their conservative base that Democrats face pressures of their own from supporters.
“I’d be naive if I didn’t think pressure from the left helps us at the bargaining table,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate’s bipartisan working group who asked Napolitano pointed questions about the administration’s stepped-up deportations at last week’s hearing.
“We hear [at] every meeting about pressure from the right. We have to be sure everyone is sensitive to the need to make concessions,” Durbin said in an interview.
The administration has long touted its stepped-up enforcement efforts, partly in an attempt to defuse Republican arguments that immigration change must wait until the border is more secure. Advocates believe that effort is bound to be futile.
Indeed, the argument has largely failed to persuade those who believe the system remains problematically porous and that the current debate will probably result in amnesty for people who came to the country illegally.
Opponents, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), argue that the Obama administration has inflated deportation statistics by including those caught at the border and returned home along with those arrested farther inside the United States.
Sessions contended that the anger from activists is part of a coordinated campaign to create the impression that Obama has cracked down on illegal immigration, even as the administration introduces what he termed “backdoor amnesty.”
“It is truly odd that we live in a time when the Executive Branch takes more seriously the protests of illegals against even weak enforcement of the law than it does the concerns of sworn law officers,” he said in a statement.
But immigrants and their advocates say that despite public promises that criminals are being prioritized for deportation, on the ground, thousands of others are being caught up as well.
That was a central point of activists who raised the issue with Obama at the White House, spending the last 10 minutes of their off-the-record meeting urging him to ensure that his administration is following its own policies.
“I actually don’t trust them,” Natally Cruz, 24, an advocate from Phoenix arrested for protesting at last week’s Senate panel, said of Obama.
Cruz, who was brought to the country illegally when she was 8, was recently accepted for the administration’s new deferral program for young adults. But she said her mother could still be deported, and her uncle was swept up in a raid days before the hearing.
“I heard this four years ago, that there would be an immigration reform,” she said. “They talk and talk. All I see is more people being deported every day.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a longtime advocate of immigration changes, said people like him face a quandary.
They want to advocate on behalf of people such as Cruz, even as they understand the need not to undermine the president’s leadership.
“He’s the quarterback of this,” Gutierrez said. “Do you nit at him at the same time?”
Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.
Discuss this topic and other political issues in The Post’s Politics Discussion Forums.