Latinos and immigration activists are warning of political peril for President Barack Obama and Democrats in the fall elections unless the president acts boldly and soon to curb deportations and allow more immigrants to remain legally in the U.S.
Many activists say Obama has been slow to grasp the emotions building within the Latino community as deportations approach the 2 million mark for his administration and hopes for immigration legislation fade.
With House Republicans unlikely to act on an overhaul, executive action by Obama is increasingly the activists’ only hope.
“There is tremendous anger among core constituencies of the president and the Latino and Asian communities in particular,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which champions immigration change. “He has a momentous choice to make.”
Activists credit their sit-ins and hunger strikes for Obama directing new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review the administration’s deportations policy and suggest ways to make it more humane.
Now they’re focused on ensuring they get the outcome they want — an expansion of Obama’s two-year-old policy allowing work permits for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children who have been in school or the military.
The program has helped more than 600,000 people. Activists want it expanded to include more immigrants, such as those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years or who since their arrival have had children. Depending on how it’s defined, that could help many millions more.
Obama has said he doesn’t have the authority to take such a step without Congress. At a White House meeting with religious leaders Tuesday he emphasized that he wouldn’t act on his own while there still was a window for congressional action, participants said.
Republicans have warned that a unilateral move by Obama would end any possibility for cooperation on immigration legislation. A bill to improve border security and offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million immigrants here illegally remains stalled in the GOP-led House 10 months after passing the Senate.
But many activists say they’ve all but given up on Republicans and argue that Obama has the responsibility and authority to take expansive steps to legalize large segments of the population.
“At this point anything short of an affirmative administrative relief program for parents of U.S. citizens and Dreamers is not enough,” said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy at United We Dream, which represents immigrants brought here illegally as kids, known by their supporters as Dreamers. “The clock on Obama has run out.”
Despite the complaints from activists, Republicans accuse the Obama administration of inflating its record on deportations by counting people removed as they’re attempting to cross the border or shortly thereafter. In the 2013 fiscal year more than 60 percent of the nearly 370,000 deportations were of recent border crossers, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigration activists, meanwhile, say they feel betrayed by Obama, who was elected with strong Latino and Asian support in 2008. They complain that his strategy of winning GOP cooperation by increasing enforcement has failed.
Cynthia Diaz, 18, participated in a six-day hunger strike outside the White House last week to protest her mother’s detention. She pointed to Obama’s promise to prioritize immigration reform.
“That’s how he got the Latino vote, and now he just stabbed us in the back,” Diaz said.
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