Don’t call me deporter-in-chief: Obama defends his immigration legacy

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Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama is coming out swinging to defend his record on immigration.

Last month, the president acted alone to allow as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. It was one of the boldest moves of his presidency, but it still did not satisfy every supporter of immigration reform.

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Polls show the vast majority of Latino voters support his move, but some immigrant activists say he didn't go far enough to curb deportations. At a speech in Las Vegas to rally support for his plan, two men interrupted the president urging him to expand protections for undocumented immigrants. Obama has been heckled on immigration many times before he took action, but it's something he surely hoped his program would stop.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have retaliated in predictable fashion, deriding the move as unconstitutional and dubbing Obama an "emperor." Despite past claims that he couldn't do so, the president has said he has the legal authority to act.

The president's interview with Fusion on Tuesday served to highlight some of these tensions. Obama sat down with Jorge Ramos and, as they have before, the two engaged in a back-and-forth over the president's immigration record.

The veteran anchor asked Obama why he allowed deportations to hum along at a record pace during the first five years of his presidency if he had the power to slow them all along — a situation that caused one prominent Latino leader to label him the "deporter-in-chief."

Obama rejected the idea that he could have stopped deportations. "That is not true," he replied.

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The president bristled at the suggestion that "there are simple, quick answers to these problems," which "makes the assumption that the political process is one that can easily be moved around depending on the will of one person."

Despite his latest move, Obama insisted he can't go any further and halt deportations altogether. "We can't do that," he said.

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Why does this type of criticism appear to get under Obama's skin? Because immigration, along with healthcare, the economy, and the environment, is a legacy-defining issue for him. Latinos helped elect him twice on a promise that he would attempt to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul through Congress.

But that's unlikely to happen during Obama's final two years in office. Republican lawmakers don't appear interested in passing the type of immigration fix he would sign into law. Even though GOP lawmakers have blocked a bill, many advocates saw it as an unfulfilled promise by the president.

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So Obama's executive decision to protect many, but not all, undocumented immigrants from deportation could be a way to "make good on his broken promise," as Ramos wrote last month.

The hope for Obama is that it will reshape his complex record on the issue. The administration took steps to crack down on illegal immigration. The number of Border Patrol agents at the southwest border to the highest it has ever been. It has implemented controversial enforcement programs, such as Secure Communities, that required local police to help enforce immigration laws. This spring, Obama passed the 2 million mark for deportations, as many as George W. Bush in his eight years in office. Ramos told Obama that he had "destroyed many families" with his deportation record.

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Obama's new program represents a chance to shed the deporter-in-chief label. Many undocumented parents of U.S. citizens will be allowed to seek a three-year deportation reprieve and apply for a work permit. The Secure Communities program is being reformed. And the number of deportations reportedly fell by 14 percent in the past year to the lowest level of Obama's presidency.

In his conversation with Ramos, Obama recognized that his executive action leaves out millions of undocumented immigrants who could only receive legal status through an act of Congress.

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And he acknowledged the temporary nature of his new initiative. Some immigrants have expressed fear that they could be deported if a future president gets rid of the program, sparking concerns about low registration.

Shielding a significant portion of the undocumented population will go down as a major piece of Obama's immigration legacy. But there's still the reality that a more permanent fix won't be achieved—at least for now.

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"This is a temporary measure designed to help as many people as we can right now," he said. "But we’ve still have a big fight that we’re going to have to take in the future."

Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.

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