WASHINGTON — Advocates for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are insisting that President Obama halt most deportations, saying he is expelling people his fellow Democrats would let stay in the country.
The change in tactics comes as some Republicans now support a path to legal status — not citizenship — for many of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, though House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, isn’t moving to revamp immigration laws this year.
Churches and labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, are using the appearance of common ground to force Obama to change policies that lead to about 1,000 deportations a day, more than under any other president. They say Obama could gain favor with Hispanic voters before the November congressional elections by easing deportations, as he did before his 2012 re-election.
“Some of the organizations that were spending almost all of their time putting pressure on Republicans have now changed their focus to putting pressure on this administration,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has worked on immigration issues for two decades in Congress, said in an interview. “And these are friends and allies.”
This moves deportations to the center of a debate over whether to provide a path to citizenship for people living in the U.S. illegally, the most contentious part of a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate last year.
More than 640 groups and companies including Microsoft, Caterpillar and Wal-Mart Stores lobbied on immigration issues last year, a 79 percent increase from 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said this month that Obama would increase his leverage with Republicans by halting deportations for all but violent criminals. The labor group, which claims 12.5 million members, spent $31.7 million helping elect mostly Democrats in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in December that Obama should reduce deportations.
Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, wrote in November that he was troubled that the administration deported 200,000 parents of U.S. citizens in 2012 and others who “only committed minor, nonviolent infractions, such as traffic offenses.”
Last week, 32 immigration advocates were arrested in front of the White House while protesting deportation policies, including Minerva Carcano, the first female Hispanic bishop in the United Methodist Church. They were arrested for blocking a park sidewalk and released after paying a $50 fine, said U.S. Park Police Sgt. Lelani Woods.
Also arrested was Hermina Gallego, who said her husband, Sebastian, is being detained in Texas and her daughter, Rosy, is in custody in Arizona. Both face deportation to Mexico.
“The president can do it,” Gallego, 36, of Phoenix, Ariz., said in an interview. “He can stop all of this and not allow more families to suffer.”
The U.S. deported 368,600 foreigners last year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Of those, 59 percent had criminal records, said John Sandweg, then acting director of ICE.
Last year’s deportations were down 10 percent from 2012. Still, there were 1.93 million forced departures during Obama’s first five years in office, almost as many as the eight-year total under former President George W. Bush.
A Gallup poll released Feb. 17 showed that for the first time Americans give equal importance to developing a plan to address undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. as they do to securing the borders. For years, respondents were more likely to rate border security as extremely important.
Earlier this month, 54 percent of Americans in a CNN poll said the government’s main focus on immigration should be legalizing the undocumented. That compared with 41 percent who said the priority should be deportations and securing the U.S. borders.
The split among Hispanics is greater. Latinos, by 55 percent to 35 percent, said working in the U.S. legally without the risk of deportation was more important than a path to citizenship, according to a Pew Research report in December.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a Los Angeles- based group that helped organize the protest, filed a petition urging the administration to suspend deportations for “millions of undocumented immigrants who would likely benefit from near-term congressional action on immigration.”
Jessica Karp, an attorney for the group, said in an e-mail that it’s unclear exactly how many immigrants deported last year would have been eligible for citizenship under a Senate bill that passed with bipartisan support in June.
During his first term, Obama pointed to the record number of deportations as evidence that he was getting tough on immigration enforcement, which Republicans and some Democrats were demanding as a condition of revamping existing laws.
That hasn’t convinced many.
Boehner released a set of immigration principles on Jan. 30 that backed legal status for immigrants. A week later he said a bill would be difficult to pass because his fellow Republicans don’t trust Obama to implement the laws.
Many Republicans don’t want a debate that divides the party during an election year as they try to gain control of the Senate, which they need a net gain of six seats to do.
Halting deportations “would further poison the well” for Obama with Republicans, said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who is on the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee.
“We don’t trust the president to enforce immigration laws given his record, so we’re hoping for more favorable terrain and a more favorable environment in the next Congress,” Smith said in an interview.
Obama has maintained that he doesn’t have the authority to halt more deportations. Still, he has promised to take more executive actions after lawmakers compiled one of the least productive records of any Congress in 2013.
Obama hinted at taking some action on immigration before year’s end, when asked about halting deportations during an online video chat on Jan. 31.
“If at some point we see that it’s not getting done, I’m going to look at all options to make sure that we have a rational, smart system of immigration,” Obama said.
Obama halted some deportations in 2012, five months before his re-election, exempting younger illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements.
The president went on to win 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, according to exit polls. As a result, the Republican National Committee made reaching out to minorities a key recommendation in its post-election report.
“This is not a new playbook,” said Tamar Jacoby, chief executive officer of ImmigrationWorks, a group advocating for immigration changes on behalf of small and mid-sized businesses. “If Congress goes home in October without taking action, Obama’s in a position to do what he did last time around.”
Democrats need to win about 20 House seats held by Republicans to control the chamber, a gain they’re unlikely to make, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington group.
Still, in at least two dozen Republican-held districts, the Latino voting-age population could make the difference in November, said a July 2013 report by Latino Decisions, a Seattle polling firm.
“Halting more deportations would absolutely help Democrats politically,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a former U.S. secretary of commerce under George W. Bush and a supporter of easing immigration laws. “But it won’t help the cause for immigration reform.”
With assistance from Catarina Saraiva in Washington.