By Mike Lillis - 05/25/11 05:19 PM EDT
A group of liberal Democrats is urging President Obama to put his money where his mouth is regarding immigration reform.
The lawmakers, led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), say the president has prioritized the issue in sound but not in action.
They're asking Obama to scale back his aggressive deportation policy, particularly in cases when children are seeking an education or families would be split apart.
"While we must work to pass comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken system, we must also stop needlessly deporting the parents and the spouses of U.S. citizens — and others who are here, who are studying and working and raising families and contributing to our country," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told reporters Wednesday outside the Capitol.
"We are asking the president — who we know is on the side of the immigrants — to use his power now to stop these deportations," she said.
Gutierrez, who in March launched a national tour to bring the stories of illegal immigrants to 20 cities, announced Wednesday that he's adding 10 more cities to the tour. The purpose, he said, is "to have their stories heard until they finally penetrate the White House and we finally penetrate the consciousness of the president."
Naming steps the White House could take immediately, the Illinois Democrat promoted deportation deferrals for roughly 1 million illegal-immigrant students who would have been eligible under the DREAM Act, a Democratic bill creating a pathway for legal status for some college students and military personnel.
The DREAM Act bill passed the House in December, but failed in the Senate, not having the support to defeat a GOP filibuster.
The Democrats are also urging Obama to clarify the parameters of "extreme hardship" cases, a designation allowing those targeted for deportation to remain in the country. Current immigration law has no specific definition for extreme hardship.
"The president should define extreme hardship today," Gutierrez said. "He has the power. We don't need any more legislative action here [on that issue]."
Brittney Babo, a registered nurse living in Ridgeley, W.Va., said Wednesday that she recently filed for the extreme hardship waiver on behalf of her husband of more than four years, Serge, who was deported to his native Cameroon last August. Appearing with their two young children, Babo urged Obama to meet with families like hers who have been torn apart by current immigration laws.
"You're moving in the right direction," she said to Obama, "but it's not enough."
The Democrats said cases like Babo's are clear indications that current immigration laws are harming the country more than improving it.
"Are we better off for snatching the father of these children away from his family?" Schakowsky asked. "What sense does this make?"
It's not that Obama has ignored the issue; earlier this month, the president visited El Paso, Texas, where he delivered a headline-grabbing speech calling on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including the DREAM Act.
"There is a consensus around fixing what’s broken," he said. "Now we need Congress to catch up to a train that’s leaving the station."
The president in recent weeks has also met with lawmakers, business leaders and religious figures in search of an immigration-reform solution that's eluded presidents of both parties for years.
Gutierrez said he was "happy and delighted" that Obama has the issue on his radar, but also charged that there's much more the White House could be doing.
"Do we really need a courtroom to prove that this mother is going to live in extreme hardship?" Gutierrez asked, referring to Babo. "The administration can do something right away."
Last month, Gutierrez warned that he could withhold support for Obama next year if the White House doesn't fight harder for immigration reform.
Since taking over the White House more than two years ago, Obama's Department of Homeland Security has cracked down aggressively on illegal immigrants, with deportations approaching 400,000 annually under his watch, according to Schakowsky.
In El Paso, the president defended the tough enforcement.
"Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families," Obama said. "But they’ve broken the rules, and have cut in front of the line. And the truth is, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."
Critics, including the Democrats who spoke out Wednesday, said he needs to pay more attention to the human toll of his deportation policies.
"These are families, they are not criminals," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). "The laws are broken, but it doesn't mean that we continue to break up families."
Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) also appeared at Wednesday's event.