White House: Obama Can’t Legalize Undocumented, Congress Can

The White House wants to tamp down expectations that President Obama will act on his own to slow the pace of deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Cecilia Muñoz, a top Obama adviser, said in an interview with Fusion’s León Krauze that the president remains focused on pushing a bill through Congress, which is “closer than we have ever been” to passing an immigration overhaul. Her comments come as immigrant advocacy groups continue to pressure Obama to bypass Congress to implement a fix.

“What people are asking is that the president simply say he’s not going to enforce the law with respect to 8 million — 10 million people, which is more than your executive authority allows you to do,” she said. “The answer to this conundrum is, and has always been, legislation.”

But the White House has opened the door to taking unilateral steps to address deportations. Obama last month directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct a review of the administration’s policies to see if it can carry out removals in a more “humane” way.

Johnson has met with activists and members of Congress to discuss potential changes, and reports have indicated that Obama will likely act on his own if the Republican-controlled House of Representatives does not take up a bill.

But Muñoz stressed that an executive action that addresses the administration’s enforcement priorities “can’t be a substitute for immigration reform.”

When the president was under similar pressure to address deportations in 2012, he enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has granted temporary deportation relief to over 500,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. But only an act of Congress can implement a permanent fix that would help millions of other undocumented immigrants, she said.

“This president will continue to allow for it to be renewed,” she said, referring to DACA. “No one can know what the next president will do. What the president said two years ago … was that those young people deserved better than have to plan their lives in two-year increments.”

Advocates have grown weary of waiting for Congress to move a comprehensive solution, however. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan bill that contained a path to citizenship, but that was almost 10 months ago. Republicans leaders in the House have refused to vote on a bill amid divisions within their party.

Meanwhile, Obama is on pace to oversee the 2 millionth deportation of his presidency this spring, more than George W. Bush carried out during his entire presidency.

Last month, National Council of La Raza President (NCLR) and CEO Janet Murguía dubbed Obama the “deporter-in-chief.” Prominent Democratic lawmakers and activists have called on the president to slow deportations on his own. A group of three activists recently began a hunger strike outside the White House demanding that Obama end deportations.

Muñoz, a former top NCLR official herself, said it isn’t fair to slap Obama with the deporter-in-chief label.

She said that “no one has been pushing harder for immigration reform than President Obama.” And she added that the administration has taken steps to reduce the number of people who are deported, but don’t fall under its own priorities, namely those who live in the country and have not committed a serious crime.

“Any delay by the Republicans is what’s costing those families their ability to live together,” she said.

At the same time, she expressed confidence that Republicans would eventually come around to pass a bill.

“We have won the argument in the sense that Republicans are not debating whether to to pass an immigration reform,” she said. “They are debating when.”

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