As he seeks to rekindle support among Hispanic voters, President Obama pushed back Wednesday against criticism over his administration’s deportation policies for illegal immigrants.
Eventually, the president grew frustrated when Gabriel Lerner, an editor at Huffington Post, asked a question that had been submitted by an AOL user from New York City who wondered about the slow progress on the DREAM Act.
That proposal, which as not passed Congress, would provide conditional permanent residency to illegal immigrant students who graduate from U.S. schools and fulfill other requirements.
Obama, who already had been criticized in the roundtable for the high number of deportations, said: “I just have to continue to say this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true. We are doing everything we can administratively. But the fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce.”
The president went on: “And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true.”
Obama won about two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 after saying immigration reform would be among his top priorities. But his administration has deported one million illegal immigrants, which has led to disappointment among many Hispanics. Latino unemployment stands at 11.3 percent, above the national average of 9.1 percent.
During the roundtable, Obama defended his administration’s record on deportations, arguing that the government was focused on deporting illegal immigrants who have criminal records and not those who abide by the country’s laws and are contributing positively to society.
“The statistics are actually a little deceptive because what we’ve been doing is with the stronger border enforcement we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back,” Obama said. “That is counted as a deportation, even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours, sent back. . . .So what we’ve tried to do is within the constraints of the laws on the books, we’ve tried to be as fair, humane, just as we can, recognizing, though, that the laws themselves need to be changed.”
He also said that his administration is eager to reform immigration laws but that Republicans in Congress are standing in the way.
“Right now we have not gotten that kind of support -- sadly, because only a few years ago, as I said, you had some Republicans who were willing to recognize that we needed to fix our immigration system,” Obama said. “George Bush, to his credit, recognized that we needed to fix our immigration system. Ronald Reagan understood that immigration was an important part of the American experience. Right now you have not that kind of leadership coming from the Republican Party.”
Obama’s appearance before the Latino community came just days after he gave a tough speech in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been critical of the president’s performance. Unemployment among blacks is 16.7 percent. The president told that group to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and to march with him.
In a column for Huffington Post after the roundtable, Lerner cast Obama's appearance at the event, which was broadcast on the Internet, as ”a confirmation of a shift for this Administration.”
Lerner wrote that whether Latinos “agree or disagree with Obama in this never ending political campaign, the President showed a deep understanding of the intricacies of the issues that are dear to Hispanics, and of the priorities needed to improve the standing of the Latino community.”