Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Frustrated with the failure of House Republicans to tackle immigration, advocates are demanding that President Barack Obama use his powers as chief executive to stop deportations or provide some relief to many of the 11 million immigrants living here illegally.
Obama insists that the nation's laws limit his ability to act unilaterally, even though his administration acted on its own last year to suspend deportations of some immigrants brought illegally into the country as children and more recently decided some relatives of U.S. service members living here illegally could remain.
The administration has also quietly changed the rules for immigrants from Visa Waiver Program countries, people who arrived in the U.S. legally but stayed longer than the 90 days the program allows. Now people from the 37, mostly European, countries in the program who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can apply to stay in the United States legally.
The moves stand in sharp contrast to the actions of Obama's Homeland Security Department, which has deported a record 1.47 million people during the president's nearly five years in office, according to internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. Heckling of the president during California appearances Monday underscored the dissatisfaction with the Democratic president, not only over the stalled immigration overhaul but the administration's policies.
"Stop deportations! Stop deportations!" audience members yelled at Obama during a speech in San Francisco that was interrupted by a young man who said his family has been separated for 19 months.
"Executive order" was the rallying cry at a separate Democratic fundraiser Monday. Obama, the former instructor in constitutional law, responded to the criticism with a brief lesson in the nation's rules.
"If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so," Obama told the first group. "But we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws."
House Republican leaders have rejected the Democratic-controlled Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, which passed on a bipartisan vote in June. The far-reaching measure would provide new visa and workplace enforcement programs and billions of dollars for border security, along with a path to citizenship for millions.
Small, stand-alone bills from the House Judiciary Committee have languished for months, and leaders signaled that votes are unlikely in this year's remaining legislative days even though Obama recently embraced the piecemeal approach. Prospects for immigration legislation in 2014, with congressional elections looming, are slim despite the issue's political drag on the GOP.
Advocacy groups have been as loud as the California protesters in calling for Obama to act while they maintain pressure on House Republicans with protests and acts of civil disobedience.
"House Republicans are infuriating, and legislation is the permanent solution, and we're going to keep fighting for legislation. But that doesn't let Obama off the hook," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant group, said Tuesday. "He continues to be the president who presides over record deportation."
What angers the advocacy groups is that many of those deported are immigrants who would qualify for legal status or citizenship under the Senate-passed legislation, which Obama supports.
The organizations argue that Obama could expand his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which dealt with some of the children brought illegally into the country, to their parents. He also could delay action against workers who have helped in the prosecution of employers who have broken the law or immigrants who don't represent a threat to national security, the groups say.
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