A review of the U.S. deportation system ordered by President Barack Obama is seen by pro-immigration Democrats as good policy and good politics.
It’s appeasing the party’s Senate leaders, who’d rather criticize the Republican-led House over immigration policy than spar with the White House over deportations.
Administration officials and staff for top Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, met privately on March 11 as the party aims to alleviate tensions heading into the November congressional election.
Senate staff told administration representatives that Obama’s options include stopping the deportations of parents of U.S. citizens and others who would be protected under a Senate bill that passed last year, according to a person familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity to describe it.
“There are a lot of people hoping for these changes,” said Eliseo Medina, head of an immigration campaign for the Service Employees International Union, which claims 2.1 million members. The group spent $41 million supporting mostly Democrats in the 2012 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political spending.
Deportations have been at 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 immigration revamp bill that the Senate passed last year.
More than 640 groups and companies including Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) lobbied on immigration issues in 2013, a 79 percent increase from 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A broad, employment-based revamp of immigration policy would benefit the world’s biggest economy, adding about 3.2 percentage points to real gross domestic product in the next 10 years while cutting $150 billion from the budget deficit, according to a report last week from Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for Standard & Poor’s.
Obama’s announcement this month that his administration would find ways to “more humanely” enforce immigration laws earned praise from Democratic lawmakers and Hispanic groups on an issue that Medina said may become prominent in some congressional contests in November.
Still, that unity may be short lived, said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and an influential voice within his party on immigration policy.
“I want to make sure we don’t take our foot off any pedal that’s moving the engine toward the ultimate resolution,” he said in an interview. “And in the end, the ultimate resolution is to pass a bill.”
The measure the Senate passed has been stalled in the House.
Obama’s support among Hispanics has been waning as deportations averaged 1,000 a day last year, more than under any other president. The president’s job approval rating among Hispanics is 52 percent, according to a poll released last week by Gallup, down from 73 percent in a survey last May.
In Colorado, where Democratic Senator Mark Udall seeks re-election this year, 53 percent of Hispanic voters disapprove of Obama’s performance, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released last week. Exit polls show Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2012, including 75 percent in Colorado.
The president has been under pressure from churches and labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, who say he can gain favor with Hispanic voters by changing deportation policies.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has said Obama would increase his leverage with Republicans on the immigration issue by halting deportations for all but violent criminals. The labor group, which says it has 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, a California Democrat, said in December that Obama should reduce deportations. That followed concerns raised by Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, before Jeh Johnson was confirmed as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. In a letter to Johnson, Durbin said he was troubled that the administration deported 200,000 parents of U.S. citizens from 2010 to 2012.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, this month released a statement calling on the administration to halt deportations of immigrants who would be able to stay under the Senate bill. That measure, opposed by House Republican leaders, would create a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was set to vote March 13 on a resolution backing Schumer’s statement until the White House asked them to postpone the action pending a meeting between some of its members and Obama in the Oval Office, Gutierrez said in an interview.
That night, Obama told Gutierrez and two other caucus members that he’d asked Johnson to take an inventory of deportation practices to “see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law,” according to a statement the White House issued at the time.
“Everybody felt like our goal had been accomplished,” Gutierrez said about the group’s decision to sidetrack its vote and instead work with Obama on the issue. “We want to find solutions with him, and this opened that door.”
The next day, the president met with 17 immigration advocates for almost two hours, describing “the deep concern he has for the pain these families face” when they’re separated because of deportations, according to another White House statement.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based group that supports easing U.S. immigration laws, said he left the session thinking that Obama wouldn’t take any action until at least August, when lawmakers take a monthlong break.
“It seems this review will go through that period,” Noorani said in an interview.
The legislative process would be doomed if Obama sidestepped Congress and took any major executive actions, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program for the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
“For the president to make any broad changes would really set the legislative discussion back in a big way,” Rosenblum said in an interview.
Peter Boogaard, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said it was premature to discuss specific considerations. He said the review Obama ordered was “ongoing and will be conducted expeditiously.”
While White House and the Homeland Security officials declined to provide details of what the inventory will entail, advocates have offered their own definitions of what more humane deportation policies would look like. They’ve identified changes that would protect millions of undocumented workers from deportation.
Medina of the SEIU and others have said Obama should expand his 2012 action that blocked deportation of some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Exempting their parents, as well, could spare about 500,000 immigrants from being expelled, Rosenblum said.
Another recommendation — exempting undocumented immigrants who have jobs in the U.S. — would protect as many as 6.4 million more people, according to a May 2013 estimate from the Migration Policy Institute.
One of the suggestions from Senate staff members to Reid, Durbin, Schumer and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez — to exempt parents of U.S. citizens — would mean protecting 4.4 million adults from deportation, according to a January report by the National Foundation for American Policy, a Virginia-based research group that focuses on immigration among other issues.
Medina said stricter adherence to the administration’s own policies would limit some deportations. While officials have said deportations are spurred by national security, public safety and border protection concerns, Medina and others say the policy has been applied more broadly.
“If they just implement those policies accordingly, it will go a long way to solving the problem,” he said in an interview.