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A Policy Pickle for Obama, Cabinet

On Immigration Front, White House Struggles

Record deportations and immigration enforcement aren’t what President Barack Obama’s allies thought they were going to get when he took office nearly three years ago — and tensions have continued to mount with a constituency the president desperately needs for his re-election.

Anger over the 1 million deportations during Obama’s watch boiled over in recent weeks after White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Muñoz defended the administration’s policies in a PBS interview, with some activists calling on her to resign.

A larger group of advocates then sent a letter defending Muñoz while still criticizing the White House’s policies.

The administration itself seems keenly aware of the concerns, but there’s no magic solution to its immigration dilemma.

With dreams for comprehensive immigration reform dashed and more modest measures like the DREAM Act blocked in Congress, the administration has looked for other ways to deliver for the Hispanic community and frustrated reform advocates, similar to the “we can’t wait” campaign on jobs.

But anything short of declaring an end to deportations for nonviolent illegal immigrants might not be enough for some advocates.

Muñoz herself still seems warmly embraced by the administration’s allies on Capitol Hill, even if there remains significant anger and frustration at the White House.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) said he sees Muñoz as an important advocate for the community inside the White House.

“To me, she is the same person that worked tirelessly when she was at National Council of La Raza,” he said. “If you are unhappy with the administration, I think the president would tell you the buck does stop with him.”

Gonzalez praised the administration’s announcement last week detailing guidelines for prioritizing deportations, but he said Hispanic Members want more assurances that the guidelines will be enforced uniformly across the nation and that hundreds of thousands of low-priority immigrants won’t be deported in the meantime.

The caucus is expected to meet soon with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss the guidelines, he said.

Much of the conflict with the White House is that low-priority immigrants — including people with U.S. citizen children and no criminal records — continue to be deported by the thousands. Still, Gonzalez said, “Latinos have to appreciate the White House’s dilemma. … The president’s going to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”

White House spokesman Luis Miranda said Obama “cannot change the laws by himself” and said the GOP has blocked reform and the DREAM Act. In the meantime, the administration isn’t waiting around.

“We are implementing commonsense guidelines for prosecutorial discretion, are beginning a case-by-case review process to focus federal enforcement resources on the highest-priority individuals and are making improvements to the Secure Communities program, all of which strengthen the government’s ability to target criminals even more effectively,” he said in an email.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has led the fight for the DREAM Act, said he sympathizes with the White House. But he has at times urged administration officials to act more swiftly to change enforcement practices.

“The president’s trying to balance enforcing the laws as written with his own personal feelings shared by Cecilia and myself that we need to do something dramatic for immigration reform,” Durbin said. His DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant children who go to college or join the military, but the measure has been blocked repeatedly in the Senate.

The administration’s announcement Thursday on deportation will help, Durbin said, but it doesn’t fix the problem.

The White House’s biggest critics include Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has already been arrested twice in protests at the White House over its policies.

But Gutierrez isn’t taking it out on
Muñoz. “She’s the person with the job,” he said. “I understand why people would call her out on the one hand, and I understand why people would say, well, it’s the framework that we’ve been given that we’re going to work in through the end of this administration.”

But Gutierrez said the White House needs to do much more if it wants an energized Hispanic community behind it next year.

“I can commit my vote, but unless I’m given tools, there’s not much else I can commit,” he said. Gutierrez said it’s not enough to be a “pied piper.”

The president’s allies and the White House, meanwhile, continue to point blame in the GOP’s direction.

“It has become a critical part of the Republican presidential debate that anybody who says they want to work to a solution is roundly criticized by the extremists in that party,” Durbin said.

A senior Democratic aide working on immigration issues said last week that the Obama administration made two “fundamental miscalculations” at the beginning of his term. One was that the administration wanted the “whole enchilada” on reform, which was never going to pass Congress, and the second was a decision to “go all out on enforcement” in an effort to appeal to the GOP.

“Anybody could have told you in January 2009 there is no way in hell we were going to get the votes,” the aide said. “We needed a new strategy.”

The aide said even the latest efforts to adjust the deportation priorities are getting a soft sell from the administration. “They are so concerned about the reaction from the right wing,” the aide said. But the aide felt like that caution was misplaced.

People who don’t want immigration reform “aren’t voting for you anyway.”

The Obama administration’s beefed-up enforcement and policing of the border “hasn’t helped with the Republicans,” Durbin said. “It turns out there was always something else that they were looking for.”

Indeed, Republicans blasted the latest enforcement guidance, pitting illegal immigrants against the unemployed.

“The administration’s decision to move forward with backdoor amnesty could mean jobs, but not for unemployed Americans,” House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a statement. “This massive administrative amnesty to illegal immigrants could instead allow illegal immigrants to receive work authorization and could put more Americans on the unemployment rolls.”

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