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Obama, on Telemundo, rules out freezing deportations of most illegal immigrants

New American citizens say the Pledge of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony Tuesday in New York City. (John Moore/Getty Images)

President Obama on Tuesday ruled out using his executive authority to freeze deportations for most of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, saying such a move would violate federal law.

With a comprehensive immigration overhaul stalled on Capitol Hill, advocates have called on the president to move forward without congressional approval to halt the deportations, estimated at more than 1,000 per day.

But Obama said such a move is “not an option.” During an interview at the White House with Telemundo, the Spanish-language television network, Obama defended his decision last summer to defer the deportations of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents as children. The legal rationale in that case, he said, was to allow federal agencies to devote more time and resources to high-priority immigration cases such as those involving people with multiple criminal convictions.

But he said that expanding that deferment program beyond the young people it now covers “would be ignoring the law in a way that would be very difficult to defend legally.”

The president’s decision is likely to disappoint advocates who are beginning to lose hope that sweeping immigration legislation will advance out of Congress this year. House Republicans have refused to vote on a Senate-approved plan that features a 13-year path to citizenship for the undocumented, choosing instead to focus on piecemeal bills dealing with increased border security and workplace visas.

House leaders said they will hold a policy meeting Thursday on issues important to the Latino community, including immigration, and they released a video to mark the start of Hispanic Heritage Month this week. But the video made no mention of immigration, and some lawmakers who support of a comprehensive overhaul said they fear the clock is running out as Congress and the White House turn to an extended debate over the budget and debt ceiling.

Advocates said they will keep pressure on the House, including a rally and concert on the Mall on Oct. 8 featuring a performance by Grammy-winning Latin group Los Tigres del Norte. Organizers expect the two-hour concert to draw tens of thousands of people to Congress’s doorstep, an important visual symbol that can add cultural weight to the political movement.

“A handful of extremists in the House of Representatives wants to stop anything progressive, anything that means something to working people, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants,” said Jaime Contreras, a vice president at the Service Employees International Union. “It’s time for Republican leaders to start standing up to the extremists and let them know that inaction is not an option for us. We will not stop until we win this fight.”

Obama has used targeted interviews with Spanish-language media to assure the Latino community that he remains committed to an overhaul of the nation’s border control laws. In the Telemundo appearance, Obama acknowledged the growing frustration in a community that overwhelmingly supported his reelection but might now be “losing heart” on a legislative solution on immigration.

Since announcing his push for an overhaul in a speech in Las Vegas in late January, the president has chosen to let Congress lead the debate, calculating that a more robust public campaign would anger Republicans and push away potential supporters.

Obama challenged House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring the Senate plan to the floor for a vote, predicting it would pass with bipartisan support even if the majority of the GOP caucus would vote against the bill.

“He shouldn’t be afraid of majority opinion on this thing,” Obama said. “If in fact the overwhelming majority of the American people think we need to do something on immigration — we’ve got a bipartisan bill — why not go ahead and let it come to the floor of the House and let’s see what happens?”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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