In less than 24 hours, two high-ranking Senate Democrats have publicly supported immigration advocates in calling for the Obama administration to reduce the number of deportations of some undocumented immigrants. In an effort to tackle immigration reform in the absence of Congressional action, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) separately called on the Obama administration to suspend the deportation of immigrants who have committed low-level crimes. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters on Wednesday that he has been urging administration officials to suspend the deportation of immigrants who would have qualified for legalization under the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. According to Politico, Durbin said, “If we’re dealing with strictly technical violations of immigration law, I don’t believe they should be deported. If there’s a criminal record, it’s totally different.”
Just the night before, Menendez (D-NJ) expressed similar sentiments, but used slightly stronger language, saying, “While we continue waiting for the House of Representatives to wake up and move on immigration reform legislation, I urge the President to take action today and halt needless deportations that are splitting apart our families and communities.” During an awards ceremony hosted by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in which Durbin was also in attendance, Menendez said, “The current deportation apparatus is an outrage and it’s a tragedy.”
“Just two weeks ago, my office had to ask [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to reconsider the unfair deportation of a New Jersey man with no criminal record and three U.S. citizen children — one of whom is very ill and in medical need of his father,” Menendez continued. “Does anyone think that an upstanding citizen and New Jerseyan like Carlos should be deported before a criminal is deported?”
At the same event, NCLR president Janet Murguia described Obama as “deporter-in-chief,” which some commentators took to be the first time that the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization has stepped away from defending the administration. Yet Murguia also delivered a measured response by calling on both Obama and Congress to mitigate the damage caused by deportations, “[Obama] does have the power to stop this. Failure to act will be a shameful legacy for his presidency. But we cannot rely on administrative relief alone. It’s important and it’s needed, but it is also limited and temporary. We do a grave disservice to our community and to ourselves if we focus on only one front in this battle. Only Congress can deliver a broad, inclusive, and lasting solution.”
Immigration advocates have long held Republicans accountable for holding out on a permanent solution. But while Congress is at a standstill on immigration reform, they have turned increasingly to pressuring the President to provide a temporary fix. On Wednesday night, activists gathered at Central Connecticut State University, where the President spoke, to protest. According to USA Today, they carried signs that read, “Stop Deportation,” and shouted, “Obama! Obama! Don’t deport my mama!”
The President retains some capacity to decide who it deports and how frequently it uses its power through what is known as “prosecutorial discretion.” To that end, the Obama administration has issued a series of memos advising immigration agents to exercise such discretion when they detain undocumented family members of military personnel, undocumented immigrant parents. Obama even exercised that discretion to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants deportation reprieve to undocumented youths and allows those immigrants to work in two-year increments. But despite these initiatives, the government has deported numerous low-priority undocumented parents. Between 2010 to 2012, a record-breaking 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported. Amidst calls for Obama to stop more deportations, President Obama has repeatedly pointed out that doing so without a change in the law would test the limits of his executive power, and that the only permanent solution that will survive his presidency is an act of Congress.
On Thursday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement to Politico, “If the House recesses in September without passing immigration reform, in October the administration should stop deporting hard-working and law-abiding people who would be covered by the Senate bill.”