President Obama rejects the idea that the nearly two million deportations under his watch have earned him the title “deporter-in-chief.”
“I am the champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said during a town hall with Spanish-language media on Thursday. “What I’ve said in the past remains true, which is until Congress passes a new law, then I am constrained in terms of what I’m able to do."
The town hall, in partnership with Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, centered on healthcare but segued into Obama's immigration record.
Undocumented immigrants will not be eligible for insurance under Obamacare, but the two issues are intertwined. For example, Obama was asked whether federal authorities would share private information from health insurance applications with immigration officials. That could affect “mixed-status” families, where some family members have legal status while others do not.
“None of the information that is provided in order for you to obtain health insurance is in any way transferred to immigration services,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been very clear about. If you live in a mixed-status family, then the son… he needs to be signed up. And the mother should not be fearful.”
The president is recruiting more Americans to sign up for health insurance under the marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act. More than four million people have obtained insurance through the program, but the open enrollment period closes on March 31.
That’s only a fraction of the total uninsured in the U.S., however. Nearly 47 million non-elderly Americans were uninsured in 2012, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Under the law, Americans without health insurance will face a tax penalty that will be phased in over the next three years.
Republicans have strongly opposed the healthcare law and used it as a way to rally their base with midterm congressional elections coming up later this year. The launch of the Obamacare website, a messy affair in both English and Spanish, served as an easy target for the GOP over the past several months.
The problems with the law, however, go beyond the website interface, according to Izzy Santa, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. "This is more than just a sloppy Spanish website," he said in a statement, "it’s about a misguided health care policy that is hurting Latino families, workers and small business owners.”
The outreach through Spanish-language media is part of a push by the White House to bolster the ranks of the insured. There's an enrollment disparity when it comes to Latinos and healthcare. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the country's population but account for one-third of those without insurance.
The town hall was organized as part of the "Get Covered America" campaign ("Asegúrate" in Spanish), an enrollment effort aimed at Latinos.
Unsurprisingly, immigration-related issues came to the forefront during the event. Even though the Obama administration has offered some measure of deportation relief to undocumented young people, the president said on Thursday that he can’t act unilaterally to halt deportations.
“I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to get comprehensive immigration reform done this year.”
One of the president’s firmest backers among the immigrant-rights activists — Janet Murguía, the executive director of the influential National Council of La Raza — recently criticized Obama, calling him “deporter-in-chief” and demanding he use his executive power to offer relief to undocumented immigrants.
The president defended his record with Latinos on Thursday, citing programs to help Hispanic families keep their houses through the recession and changes to immigration policy that have allowed certain undocumented young people to live and work in the U.S.
“I think the community understands that I’ve got their back and I’m fighting for them,” he said. “Does that mean that there aren’t going to be frustrations when changes don’t happen as fast as they should? Of course… If something’s wrong, then they’re saying, ‘Why hasn’t Obama done something about this?’’
This post was last updated at 2:35 p.m.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.