Obama: Deportations not just up to me

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President Obama on Friday warned House Democrats that there are limits to what his administration can do unilaterally to scale back deportations, even those that splinter immigrant families.

Many congressional Democrats have pressed the president to expand his deferred action program – which allows some youngsters in illegal immigrant families to remain in the United States temporarily – to the parents of those kids.

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But, addressing the Democratic Caucus during a closed-door meeting on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Obama pushed back against the notion that he can make that change without congressional action. He urged the lawmakers to understand that there are “outer limits to what we can do by executive action,” according to a Democratic aide familiar with the discussion.

The president defended his move to halt deportations of some illegal immigrant kids under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the aide said, but warned of “genuine limits to what we can do.”

Obama then urged the Democrats to continue pressing GOP leaders for a House vote this year on comprehensive immigration legislation – “Don't take your foot off the pedal,” he said – while predicting reforms are inevitable.

“It's not question of if, but when,” Obama said, according to the aide.

The remarks came in response to a question from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who was among the House Democrats gathered in Cambridge, Md., this week for their annual issues retreat.

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) also broached the topic, asking Obama to give more consideration to family ties in carrying out his deportation policy, the aide said.

Obama defended his record on the issue, saying, “We have actively changed policy to focus on folks with criminal records ... [and] relieve burdens on families,” the aide said.

Launched in the summer of 2012 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the deferred action program allows some high-achieving immigrants brought to the United States illegally as kids to stay and work in the country for two years – a concept modeled on the Dream Act legislation that has stalled in Congress.

Many Democrats have long-wondered why Obama hasn't expanded the DACA program to include illegal immigrant adults who are working and pose no threat to the country.  

During an immigration speech in San Francisco late last year, Obama was confronted with that issue when a heckler interrupted the president: “You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country,” shouted Ju Hong, 24, a South Korean immigrant. 

“Actually, I don’t,” Obama replied. “And that’s why we’re here.”