In one of his most direct encounters with immigration demonstrators this year, President Obama was confronted by protesters over his deportation policy during a speech in San Francisco on Monday.
A protester cut off Obama’s speech on immigration reform and asked him to use his executive authority to stop undocumented immigrants from being deported. The president replied to the demonstrator, who stood several rows behind him on a riser, that he does not have that power. The incident was a reminder that Obama, and not just Republicans in Congress, face pressure to deliver on immigration reform.
“We agree that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” the demonstrator said. “At the same time, you have a power to stop deportation for all.”
“Actually, I don't. And that's why we're here,” Obama answered.
Chants of “stop deportations! stop deportations!” broke out. After they died down, Obama delivered a detailed explanation that he lacks the authority to unilaterally suspend deportations. He said that would require an act of Congress.
“So the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” he said. “And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve.”
The Obama administration is on track to deport 2 million undocumented immigrants by next year, according to estimates. That's a much faster pace than under President George W. Bush. With immigration reform stalled in Congress, pro-immigration reform activists have increased pressure on Obama to stop deportations through executive action.
They claim the legal precedent exists to do so, citing his administration’s decision last year to allow young undocumented immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. as children, to apply for temporary relief from deportation.
The Obama administration also recently announced it is allowing certain family members of U.S. military servicemembers who do not have papers to stay in the country.
Obama faces sagging approval ratings on the immigration issue. Only 32 percent of Americans approve of his handling of immigration, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Only half of Democrats endorse the way he has handled immigration.
But the White House has long maintained that Obama lacks the legal authority to enact a more expansive deportation relief program.
Placing the focus back on Congress, Obama expressed confidence that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could overcome party divisions and pass an immigration overhaul. Boehner, however, has been unwilling to negotiate with the Senate over the broad bill it passed this summer.
“I believe the Speaker is sincere. I think he genuinely wants to get it done,” the president said.
The president used a colorful Thanksgiving-themed analogy to reiterate that he’s okay with the House’s step-by-step approach, as long as it addresses all aspects of reform.
“It’s Thanksgiving, you know. We can carve that bird into multiple pieces,” he said.
At the same time, he sought to allay the fears of protesters in the crowd who might believe the chance for Congress to act on immigration reform has passed.
“I am going to march with you and fight with you every step of the way to make sure that we are welcoming every striving, hardworking immigrant," he said. “And if you're serious about making that happen, then I'm ready to work with you. But it is going to require work. It is not simply a matter of us just saying we're going to violate the law. That's not our tradition.”
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.