Rep. Luis Gutierrez was arrested along with other immigrant rights advocates outside the White House on Wednesday while protesting the Obama administration's refusal to exert its administrative authority to grant sympathetic immigrants relief from its deportation policies.
The Illinois lawmaker said he was unconvinced by a comment Obama made earlier this week when he said Republicans were to blame for the lack of movement on immigration overhauls.
"Here's the only thing you should know," Obama said in an address on Monday at a conference of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization, "The Democrats and your president are with you."
"Don't get confused about that. Remember who it is we need to move in order to actually change the laws."
"The President says Republicans are blocking immigration reform and he's right, but it doesn't get him off the hook," Gutierrez said in a statement. "Everyone knows he has the power to stop deporting DREAMers and others with deep roots in the U.S. and we think he should use it."
Gutierrez is not alone in his demands. Immigrant advocates have long been challenging Obama to use his executive authority to grant administrative relief to undocumented immigrants facing deportation, especially undocumented youth who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act. It's a power he's so far resisted exercising. They were joined in April by 22 senators who sent a letter to Obama urging him, in light of the political realities of Congress, to grant deferred action to DREAM Act-eligible young people. The letter outlined multiple options Obama had to grant relief to the communities he says he supports.
On Monday Obama told the crowd that as president, he was duty bound to "uphold the laws on the books."
"That doesn't mean I don't know very well the pain and heartbreak deportation has caused," he added. "I share your concerns. I understand them."
"We are working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed [immigration] laws in the most humane and best possible way," Obama said.
The Obama administration has ramped up deportation efforts through programs like Secure Communities, which allow immigration officials to peer into the databases of local and county jails to check the fingerprints of anyone who's booked against federal immigration databases. When ICE finds someone who's deportable, they'll ask local law enforcement to detain them--even if that person is never ultimately found guilty or even charged of a crime--to begin removal proceedings. While the Obama administration has maintained that its primary intent is to remove people convicted of serious crimes, "the worst of the worst," the majority of those deported have no criminal record whatsoever. And the majority of those with criminal records deported last year were deported for traffic offenses or minor infractions. In just two years the administration has deported, Gutierrez said, over 1 million undocumented immigrants.
Gutierrez and other immigration advocates want Obama to put a stay on the deportations of young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, a narrow legalization bill for undocumented youth who grew up in the U.S. They also want Obama to refuse to deport the parents of U.S. citizen children, and to put an end to enforcement programs like Secure Communities, employer audits and E-Verify, the controversial worker authorization program.
In June the Obama administration announced Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy changes that would grant ICE attorneys prosecutorial discretion so that the agency might better prioritize the kinds of people they prosecute and deport--those convicted of serious crimes over young people who have no criminal record, for instance.
And yet, seemingly every day DREAM Act activists send up notice about another young person who's facing deportation. Many times their advocacy is successful at stopping a young person's removal. On Tuesday, when 24-year-old asylum seeker Andy Mathe was deported to South Africa over the loud protests and organizing of immigrant youth organizers, the Obama administration showed the limits of its compassion.