During an immigration speech in San Francisco, California, President Barack Obama (D) was shouted down by a 24-year-old undocumented activist who protested the Obama administration’s deportation policy.
Minutes into the speech, Ju Hung, a South Korean, UC Berkeley graduate asked Obama to exercise executive authority to halt the deportation of all undocumented immigrants.
“Mr. Obama, I need your help. There are thousands of families being separated,” Hong said. “Please use your executive order to halt the deportation to all 11.5 million immigrants. You have the power to stop the deportations for all undocumented immigrants.”
As the Secret Service started to remove other activists who shouted, “Stop deportations,” a visibly irritated Obama told them to stay.
“Actually, I don’t,” Obama replied. “If in fact I could pass all these laws without Congress, I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws, that’s part of our tradition. The easy way out is to yell and pretend that I can do something by violating our laws, but what I’m proposing is the harder path which is to use our democratic process, to achieve the same goals… but it requires us lobbying and getting it done.”
Obama has long maintained that exempting too many deportations “would be difficult to defend legally.” In August and again in September, Obama said that he could not unilaterally stop all deportations because he would violate federal law.
The executive branch has the power to decide who it deports and how frequently it uses its power through what is known as “prosecutorial discretion.” But stopping all deportations would test that power in unprecedented ways and the only permanent solution that will survive his presidency is an act of Congress.
Obama has exercised this power to limit the deportation of undocumented youths between the ages of 16 to 31 and family members of military service members. His administration also issued a memo to federal immigration officials to consider family ties when immigrants are arrested and potentially placed in deportation proceedings. But these administrative band aids are temporary. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, for example, is a limited, two-year program that grants qualified undocumented youths the ability to legally work in the United State. Yet the program could be disbanded by the next presidential administration.
In spite of Obama’s theoretical commitment to less deportation, the Obama administration is on track to deport two million undocumented immigrants — a milestone that would surpass the deportation numbers of any other president.