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Can Obama choose to stop deportations?
A heckler challenged President Obama to end all deportations, but it's not quite that simple
 
Obama's response to a pro-reform heckler? "…We're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition."
Obama's response to a pro-reform heckler? "…We're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition." (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With immigration reform on life support and just a handful of days remaining before Congress takes off for the holiday break, activists who were hoping to see a meaningful reform bill this year are getting more and more frustrated by the lack of progress. Case in point: On Monday, President Obama was confronted by a member of the audience chosen to stand behind him during a speech in San Francisco.

The pro-reform heckler, who said he has been separated from his family for 19 months now, yelled that Obama has the power to stop deportations for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. The president countered that he doesn't have the authority. Said Obama: "If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress then I would do so. 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."

So who is right?

Obama doesn't have the power to "legalize" anyone. He can only delay deportation. A pathway to citizenship — or even residency — has to come from Congress, but legislation pending there has stalled thanks to the government shutdown and general gridlock in Washington, D.C.

In the absence of immigration reform, however, most legal experts agree that the executive branch does have the power to shield portions of the undocumented community from deportation, but they say it can't logistically extend that consideration to everyone who is here illegally. Where you draw that line is what's up for debate.

In June of 2012, the White House established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31 who came to America as children to avoid deportation for two years. Those in the program must either have graduated from high school or be enrolled in school and can't have a criminal record, but can legally work in the country.

Essentially, DACA pushes those eligible to the back of the deportation line. The Department of Homeland Security deports about 400,000 people a year out of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Obama has been criticized for its record number of deportations during his first five years in office.) Somebody has to be the lowest priority, and the Obama administration has taken the position that students who came here through no fault of their own should be given a break. That covers only a fraction of those here illegally — about 1.4 million people.

It's important to note that a little less than a year before Obama gave relief to DREAMers, he made a similar argument that he couldn't take legislative matters into his own hands. He was speaking to the National Council of La Raza about his desire to see comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act passed by Congress. "Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own," the president said in July of 2011. "Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you. Not just on immigration reform. But that's not how — that's not how our system works. … That's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written. So let's be honest. I need a dance partner here — and the floor is empty."

Yet, Obama wound up doing slightly more than carve out exceptions for those who are students or have earned a high school diploma. Earlier this month, he extended protections to undocumented immigrants married to members of the military and veterans. The new policy will allow them to "parole in place," a status that will allow them to remain in the U.S. while they apply for residency. Pro-reform advocates would like to see these programs expanded to include more classes of people including those with disabled children or domestic violence victims.

 
Laura Colarusso
Laura Colarusso is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She has previously written for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, the Washington Monthly and The Daily Beast.

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