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The criticism of President Obama over the record number of deportations during his tenure has peaked this week on the heels of a speech by a leading Latino civil rights group head that blamed him for separating families.
The mounting, years-long frustration among advocates of more lenient immigration policies over the nearly 2 million deportations burst onto the national radar on Tuesday night when Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, or NCLR, said in a way more pointed than the group ever has regarding the president that he is responsible for separation of many families and that he has become the “Deporter-in-Chief.”
Murguia did not coin the term – it’s been around in reference to Obama and deportation as far back as early 2011. It’s unclear who used it first.
And her assertion – that while Congress has failed to act to reform immigration, the President has many tools at his disposal to address certain problems undocumented immigrants face – is one that lenient-immigration-policy advocates have made since at least two years after he moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But her stature, and the megaphone of the NCRL, gave the old arguments and buzz phrases a high-octane push.
Every day since Murguia took Obama to task, immigration advocacy groups and members of Congress who support comprehensive reform that includes giving breaks to undocumented immigrants have picked up the ball and run with it. They’re sending daily emails, holding telephone press conferences, planning a “day of action” – all stressing the failures of the “Deporter-in-Chief,” a term they are using religiously in their message this week.
The heat on the president has grown so hot these days that at a town hall meeting with Latinos at the Newseum on Thursday, he said that on immigration, he has been the "Champion-in-Chief."
"Since I ran for president, I've pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, and I will continue to push," Obama said, according to published reports. "I am the Champion-in-Chief of comprehensive immigration reform. But until Congress passes new laws, I am constrained in what I am able to do."
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is one of the leading voices in Congress pushing for immigration reform, has for years challenged Obama to use his executive powers more to address aspects of the issue.
On Friday, Gutierrez and Murguia plan to hold a joint telephonic press briefing on immigration to take Obama to task. A press release about the call noted that both the congressman and Murguia have raised the issue of “the President and his use of prosecutorial discretion to reduce the pain that deportations are causing in immigrant communities.”
The pro-reform advocacy community has shifted its focus to the president and stopping the deportations from its focus on comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- at least in the short term.
"If Republicans don't act in the next two or three months on legislation in the House," said Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., "then most of the immigration reform campaign will focus on President Obama and the demand that he use every ounce of his executive authority to protect undocumented immigrants."
On Wednesday, Gutierrez took to the House floor to point a finger of blame on Obama.
“Republicans are currently sitting on their hands when it comes to immigration reform because they say they cannot trust the President of the United States to enforce immigration laws,” Gutierrez said to his colleagues in the House, where Republicans have the majority.
“Which President deported a population slightly larger than the population of the entire State of Nebraska?” Gutierrez asked rhetorically. “With almost 2 million people deported so far, Barack Obama has deported more people than those that live in the entire State of Nebraska. President Obama gets first place, if you can call it that. So I will put a gold star next to his picture.”
Then he asked: “Who spent more on immigration enforcement than all other criminal federal law enforcement combined? Well, if you guessed Barack Obama you’d be right. His almost $18 billion is $3.5 more than we spend on the FBI, ATF, DEA, Secret Service – all of them – combined."
And then: “Which of these Presidents put more than 420,000 people in detention in just one single year of his presidency – meaning incarceration in a private or government jail or other facility? President Obama has detained more immigrants in jails, prisons and detention facilities than any other President.”
The top ranking for various immigration enforcement records, he said, belonged to Obama, “The Deporter-in-Chief,” Gutierrez said.
In November, Obama was heckled by Ju Hong, an activist who yelled at him, “use your executive power to halt deportations,” while they were both standing on a stage at an immigration reform rally in San Francisco.
Obama argued at the time that his executive powers on deportations are limited.
“If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so,” Obama said. “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.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last month that Obama should review his deportation powers.
“I would hope that administratively, the president will do what he can to take a look at deportations, but he is being burdened by the law as it exists, and we need to change it,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Reid, however, gave the president political cover on Tuesday, shortly after seven Senate Democrats voted against Debo Adegbile, Obama’s nominee to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, an embarrassing setback.
“I, of course, believe in family unification, and certainly, I don’t believe in family disunification. One way to put this to bed once and for all is to have the Republicans do what they should do for the American people and move forward on immigration law,” he said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti jumped into the fray on Wednesday during a visit to Mexico's capital.
Garcetti, on his first foreign trip since taking office in July, said he supports Obama on immigration reform but said families and communities have been divided by the president's policy of deportations, which have totaled nearly 2 million since Obama took office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.