Any day now, President Barack Obama will have deported more than 2 million immigrants in his presidency. It's a staggering marker that has infuriated the immigrant community and mobilized it to take action.
Now, after immigrants have engaged in months of protests, hunger strikes and other forms of activism, Obama is taking a step back and re-evaluating his deportation policies.
The White House announced this week it will ask the Department of Homeland Security to review its guidelines on how the administration prioritizes deportations, in an effort to keep more families together. The declaration came as the president prepared to meet with immigration leaders Friday and followed a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system,” the White House said in a statement following Obama's meeting with the CHC.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has been critical of the president and called Obama the “deporter in chief” on the House floor, attended the meeting and noted that the immigrant community’s continual calls for action were a big motivator in the president’s change of heart.
“It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the President,” Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a statement. “This began a new dialogue between the CHC and the White House that had been dormant for too long.”
Yet it's unclear how far the president will be willing to take his executive authority. Ahead of his announcement, Obama repeatedly denied he had any constitutional authority to take action at all and silenced calls from protesters, saying his hands were tied.
Immigration policy experts warn that the president’s willingness to re-evaluate his deportation policies is certainly a far cry from a promise to do away with them.
“The White House has real political calculus to consider,” says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Center. “Administrative actions keep people together, but they are fragile.”
The president does have a few options, however. The immigrant community has called on Obama to halt deportations for a larger group of adult immigrants, such as those who have family in the U.S. The move would be similar to what he did in 2012 for young immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
More likely, though, is for the president to simply reinforce the deportation guidelines he already has laid out, including a policy to deport criminals ahead of others. While Obama has prioritized the removal of criminals over those without records, immigrant experts say the administration could do more to enforce those guidelines along the border. Statistics from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement show that 41 percent of immigrants deported in 2013 had no criminal record.
Another thing the White House could do: help immigrants understand their rights in a complicated and jargon-filled deportation system.
"There have been a number of concerns about the methods and abuse that are taking place. Even focusing on those things could begin to change the equation," Giovagnoli says.
But Republicans in Congress are watching Obama’s actions carefully. This week, the House of Representatives voted on a plan to rein in the president’s use of “prosecutorial discretion” – the rule that gives the president the ability to prioritize some types of deportations over others.
While immigration reform lays dormant in Congress this year, there is a small chance it will advance after the midterm elections. If the White House still would like to see more action from Capitol Hill, the president must tread carefully. Any broad executive actions Obama takes now could further damage his credibility with Republicans, and could hurt his ability to negotiate a broader package for immigration reform.