By Alexander Bolton - 03/06/14 06:00 AM EST
President Obama is coming under increasing pressure to slow deportations of illegal immigrants, while Congress remains stymied on immigration reform legislation.
Pressure is now coming from the Senate, where three senior members of the Democratic caucus say Obama should halt deportations of illegal immigrants who are immediately related to citizens or permanent legal residents.
On Wednesday, Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) backed Menendez.
“While we continue waiting for the House of Representatives to wake up and move on immigration reform legislation, I urge the president to take action today and halt needless deportations that are splitting apart our families and communities,” Menendez said at the National Council of La Raza’s 2014 Capital Awards dinner.
Menendez is an influential voice on immigration reform within the Senate Democratic caucus, and he co-authored the comprehensive reform bill Senate Democrats voted for unanimously last year.
When asked if he backs Menendez, Durbin said, “I do.”
Durbin, another co-author of the Senate bill, said the plight of illegal immigrants facing deportation is “heartbreaking.”
“Having sat there at those detention facilities and seen the crying mothers and babies of these people who are good, hardworking individuals deported strictly because of an immigration violation — no criminal violation — it is heartbreaking,” he said. “I want to see it come to an end.”
Durbin added the best solution to the problem would be if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) scheduled a vote on the Senate bill.
When told that Menendez’s proposal to halt deportations would be limited to illegal immigrants who are the immediate family of citizens and permanent residents, Harkin said, “I agree with him, then.”
Menendez has also proposed exempting the immediate family of illegal immigrants who came to the nation as children. Those people, known as “Dreamers” have been allowed to stay in the country by the Obama administration.
Hispanic advocacy groups and other activists have voiced frustration over the pace of deportations under Obama, who relied on Hispanic voters to win reelection in 2012. Rep. Luiz Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) has led the charge in the House.
Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, on Tuesday called Obama the “deporter in chief.”
In November, Obama was heckled by Ju Hong, an activist who yelled at him, “use your executive power to halt deportations,” while they were both standing on a stage at an immigration reform rally in San Francisco.
Obama argued at the time that his executive powers on deportations are limited.
“If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so,” Obama said. “But we’re also a nation of laws. That’s part of our tradition. And so, the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last month that Obama should review his deportation powers.
“I would hope that administratively, the president will do what he can to take a look at deportations, but he is being burdened by the law as it exists, and we need to change it,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Reid, however, gave the president political cover on Tuesday, shortly after seven Senate Democrats voted against Debo Adegbile, Obama’s nominee to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, an embarrassing setback.
“I, of course, believe in family unification, and certainly, I don’t believe in family disunification. One way to put this to bed once and for all is to have the Republicans do what they should do for the American people and move forward on immigration law,” he said.
“The president’s done a lot administratively. He’ll do everything that he can, but he can only do what he can do within the confines of the law,” he added.
The president has told pro-immigrant advocates that his administration has focused its enforcement activity on illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.
Republicans who were allied with Menendez during last year’s immigration reform debate rejected his call for Obama to take executive action.
“The law needs to be enforced,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-author of the Senate immigration bill. “If you talk to some of the folks involved in enforcing the law, they will actually argue that, in some instances, their ability to enforce the law has been impeded by this administration.”