Obama: 'Deep concern' about deportations

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President Obama and other top White House officials met with immigration activists Friday at the White House as part of the administration's new review of deportation practices.

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The meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, included Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security who has been tasked with undertaking the review, as well as top Obama advisers John Podesta and Valerie Jarrett. Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz also participated in the meeting, as did Legislative Affairs director Katie Beirne Fallon.

"The president reiterated the deep concern he has for the pain these families face and that he has asked Secretary Johnson to do an inventory of the Department’s current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law," the White House said in a statement.

The White House said Obama also reiterated his commitment to "maintaining consistent and sustained pressure on Congressional Republicans" on immigration reform.

The administrative review comes amid pressure from Latino activists and Democratic lawmakers for Obama to act on immigration in lieu of congressional action.

Earlier Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney did little to illuminate what the review might consist of, saying simply that the administration would look to act within the "confines of existing law." He said Obama has "signaled out the issue of family separations as one that obviously causes pain to too many families."

"The president understands and is concerned about the pain caused by separations that have come about through deportation, but he also understands and has made clear that there's no comprehensive fix here that he can himself enact," Carney said. "Congress has to act. "

Activists at the meeting included Janet Murguía, the head of the National Council of La Raza, who made waves last week by labeling President Obama the "deporter in-chief."

The criticism was seen as particularly stinging because the group has been among the president's strongest supporters, and because Munoz was a former NCLR vice president.

Murguía's comments also appeared to spur other top Democrats — including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — to openly call on Obama to ease deportations of illegal immigrants while waiting on a comprehensive immigration bill.

On Thursday, Obama met with Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.) and Rubén Hinojosa (Texas) at the White House, where the Latino lawmakers pressed Obama to re-examine policies that have led to a record number of deportations.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had threatened to pursue a referendum urging administrative action if the White House did not consider new ways to halt deportations. In 2012, the president used prosecutorial discretion to stop the deportation of certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. Critics denounced the move as a power grab.

On Friday, Carney hinted that prosecutorial discretion could be used to expand the pool of people eligible for deferred action.

"We have, obviously, priorities when it comes to enforcement," Carney said. "They are border security and they are public safety. And on the public safety end, that means making sure that we are using the resources we have when it comes to enforcement, on ensuring that those with criminal records, convictions are made a priority when it comes to detainment and deportation."

Becerra told reporters on Friday that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus planned to meet with Johnson as part of his review to "see if there are ways to try to diminish the harsh treatment many immigration families are feeling."

The lawmakers, Becerra said, would push the administration to "pursue as much as we can within the framework of the law … to protect families that don't deserve to be separated."

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), also a member of the CHC, said the group would not move ahead with its resolution criticizing the administration's deportation record.

“The bottom line is that the resolution was so that we could get some action,” Allard said. “And we got the meeting with the president, he’s going to be working with us, so we’ve met that goal. So there’s really, at this point, no need for the resolution. We’ve gotten at this point the attention that we needed.”

Latino activists in the Friday meeting also seemed satiated by the president's review. Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, said Obama's review "recognizes" that the current immigration system "destabilizes" immigrate families.

"But the long-term answer must come from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," Noorani said. "Only Congress can pass broad immigration reform that emphasizes our security and ensures economic, family and community stability."

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, echoed the criticism of Congress.

“While we affirm an administrative review of deportation policies the reality is that we need a vote to fix a broken system that is hurting families," Salguero said. "Evangelicals, business, and law enforcement want a vote this year.”

Republican lawmakers have complained frequently that they cannot trust President Obama to enforce provisions of a comprehensive immigration bill, citing his decision to defer action for so-called DREAMers.

“There’s no doubt we have an immigration system that is failing families and our economy, but until it is reformed through the democratic process, the president is obligated to enforce the laws we have,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Failing to do so would damage — perhaps beyond repair — our ability to build the trust necessary to enact real immigration reform.”

At the White House on Friday, Carney dismissed questions about whether the new review would deepen concerns among conservatives about trusting Obama.

"If the Republican message is they refused to reform our broken immigration system because they have an issue with the president, I think they ought to explain that to the American people," the White House spokesman said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a statement posted to his Facebook page on Friday, suggested Democrats were using the review as political leverage to spur action in the House.

"It's crystal clear where the issue of immigration reform is headed, and Republicans have only two choices to make," Schumer said. "They can either help pass comprehensive reform which will greatly reduce the flow of illegal immigrants ... or they can sit idly by and watch the president greatly curtail deportations while 11 million continue to live in limbo here in America."

The question now is when the president might move forward with new immigration policies — and how expansive he can be.

At a Latino forum on healthcare last week, Obama bristled at criticism of his deportation policies, declaring himself the "champion in chief of comprehensive immigration reform."

But Obama said that, until Congress passes a new law, he is "constrained in terms of what I am able to do."

"I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books," Obama said.

—  This story was first posted at 11:47 a.m. and has been updated.