President Obama met with more than a dozen immigration advocates Friday as the White House sought to tamp down criticism of the administration’s border policies, but he offered no promises to meet their demands to suspend more deportations.
The discussion, which lasted 11 / 2 hours, came a day after Obama began an internal policy review at the Department of Homeland Security to determine ways to make immigration enforcement more “humane.”
Advocates said afterward that the president listened to their concerns but that he was vague about what steps he would be willing to take after the review and emphasized that they should focus on pressing Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration laws.
The Senate approved a plan last summer that included a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants. But the Republican-controlled House has not supported it.
Obama “reiterated the deep concern he has for the pain these families face,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting. “The president continues to believe that the only permanent solution to fixing the broken immigration system is through meaningful comprehensive legislation.”
Several of the activists — including leaders of the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza and the United Farm Workers — said they would work with the administration to improve enforcement efforts. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who will oversee the administration’s review, also attended the meeting.
But other advocates who participated in the discussion said they are still unsatisfied with Obama’s insistence that he is legally powerless to go much beyond a 2012 decision that stopped the deportations of young people, known as “dreamers,” brought to the country illegally as children.
“It’s not going to work for me,” Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for United We Dream, said of Obama’s promise to review policies. “I came here with a demand to deliver and I delivered it. We’re seeing deportations at an all-time high.”
AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, who has been among the most vocal in his demands that Obama stop deportations, said the nation’s largest labor organization remains “deeply concerned” about the issue and “we’re going to work on that as well.”
Obama’s attempt to assuage advocates’ concerns comes as his administration nears the 2 million mark in deportations, far more than the George W. Bush administration over eight years. The current administration deported 370,000 immigrants in 2013, down 10 percent from an all-time high in 2012, according to statistics provided by the Homeland Security department.
As immigration reform has languished in Congress, advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have increasingly turned their attention toward the White House, and administration officials fear that the outcry over deportations will lessen the political pressure on Republicans to support legislation.
Obama met with three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday, when he first made the promise to conduct an internal review of policies. But the president has trodden carefully in his discussions with advocates. Administration officials have said they fear that if Obama were to use executive authority to stop most of the deportations, it would open him to more GOP attacks that he will not enforce border-control laws — and make a legislative deal even less likely.
“There is no fix here that does not include legislation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
Some immigration advocates praised the administration for having made progress in its efforts to focus on “high-priority” cases, such as people who have committed felonies or are caught crossing the border from Mexico.
The Homeland Security figures show that 64 percent of those deported were apprehended along the border. Of the remaining deportees, all but 10,336 had been convicted of a crime.
“By every measure, we have an immigration enforcement system that has produced very positive results and is more humane and better than it was when Obama came into office,” said Simon Rosenberg, who has studied border issues for the Democratic-aligned NDN think tank.
But other advocates and immigration lawyers disputed the DHS statistics and said many of those crossing the border were trying to return to the United States to be reunited with their families, while others were convicted of relatively minor crimes.
“Most of the advocacy groups are saying, ‘Go bold, go big, go now,’ ” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who attended the meeting with Obama.
Asked whether ramping up public pressure on Obama made sense strategically, Sharry responded: “Should we be nice about it? Well, we’re six years in and he has deported 2 million people. We work on these cases every day and it’s outrageous what is happening in this country.”