WASHINGTON -- Hispanic families and immigrant advocates criticized President Barack Obama Thursday for failing to keep campaign promises to change the U.S. immigration system.
The critics questioned Obama's recent comment that he could not use his executive order powers to suspend deportations because doing so "would not conform with my appropriate role as president." Obama made the comment at a town hall organized by Univision TV network.
The statement has received a lot of attention in immigrant and some Latino communities. Hispanics voted heavily for Obama in 2008 and some have felt he has let Latino supporters down by failing to move an immigration bill providing legal status to some illegal immigrants, while deporting record numbers of immigrants, many of them Hispanics.
Eva Millona, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, cited Obama's campaign promise made on July 13, 2008 at a National Council of La Raza conference.
"When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn't working and we need to change it," Obama said in the speech at the 2008 NCLR conference which is captured in video on the YouTube page of his campaign arm, Organizing for America.
The administration argues that it has focused on arresting, detaining and deporting immigrants who are serious criminal and can't ignore people who are in the country illegally when Immigration and Customs Enforcement encounters them.
Cecilia Munoz, a White House deputy assistant to the president, said in a conference call with reporters that the White House does not believe the broken immigration system allows the president to choose not to enforce certain laws. There are always going to be unfortunate examples of families being separated and painful events in immigrant communities, but administrative solutions are not feasible or do-able on a large scale, she said.
"At end of day we feel the answer to this problem is a legislative answer and we are working every day to reach the day when the president can sign an immigration reform that can fix this problem," Munoz said.
On that call, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced her agency and the Homeland Security Department have signed an agreement that essentially says Immigration and Customs Enforcement will refrain from conducting raids or doing other immigration enforcement activities at most work places if there is an ongoing Labor Department investigation at the business.
The issue of children who are U.S. citizens being separated from parents has come into sharper focus in recent weeks after a young New York girl was forced to leave the country with her grandfather. They had been in Guatemala and were returning when the grandfather was detained at an airport and denied entry to the U.S. because of a decades-old violation on his record. Her parents were waiting for the 4-year-old in New York but she was made to leave rather than be united with her parents. She was recently reunited with her parents.
In a separate incident, Maria Bolanos said at the news conference she called Prince George's County, Md., law officers after a fight with her husband, hoping for help. Instead they turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and now she is fighting a deportation order.
"I don't want to be separated from my daughter," said Bolanos, who is from El Salvador.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said the president "is only looking at one aspect of the law" by choosing not to suspend deportations by directing his administration to find ways to postpone them.
"We are asking for balance and for consideration of immigrants with deep, long-term equities in this country and for temporary relief until we are able to get legislation passed and implemented," Gutierrez said.