President Obama told a largely Latino audience Wednesday that his administration has not become more aggressive in deporting illegal immigrants, despite statistics to the contrary that he calls misleading.
"The statistics are actually a little deceptive, because what we've been doing is, with the stronger border enforcement, we've been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back," Mr. Obama said in an online discussion at the White House with Latino journalists. "That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day, or 48 hours, sent back. That's counted as a deportation."
Mr. Obama has been trying to thread a middle path between both sides of the immigration issue: Immigrant-rights activists say he should unilaterally halt deportations, and those who favor a crackdown and say he should step up enforcement at all levels.
The president showed frustration Wednesday with the immigrant-rights activists, saying he doesn't have the latitude they claim he does.
"This notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true," he said. "I think there's been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the Dream Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow by myself I can go and do these things. It's just not true."
Instead, Mr. Obama's response has been to try to tailor enforcement so that rank-and-file illegal immigrants are least in danger of deportation, while authorities use their resources to go after illegal immigrants who have long criminal records or are part of gangs.
In particular, his administration has set new rules that would give authorities discretion to drop deportation cases against young adults who might qualify for the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrant students and young adults. The legislation failed in Congress last year, but the Homeland Security Department has said students who would have qualified should not be a priority for deportation.
While Mr. Obama said deportation statistics have been skewed because of stiffer border enforcement, that's not exactly the case.
Apprehensions at the border have declined substantially over the last few years, even as his administration has set a record for total number of aliens removed, at more than 392,000. In 2008, the last full year under President George W. Bush, slightly more than 369,000 were removed.
But Mr. Obama has changed the makeup of those deported. In 2008, convicted criminals made up less than one-third of those deported, while last year they made up almost half.
In addition, of those without criminal records who were deported, an administration official said more than two-thirds of them were either apprehended at the border, had been previously removed or were recent entrants, rather than long-time illegal immigrants who were living and working within the U.S.
Mr. Obama touted the new focus Wednesday.
"There was a much greater emphasis on criminals rather than non-criminals," the president said. "There's been a huge shift in terms of enforcement and that began as soon as I came into office."
Mr. Obama again blamed congressional Republicans for resisting comprehensive immigration reform, saying the current GOP leadership has departed from the principles of former Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
"Right now you have not that kind of leadership coming from the Republican Party," Mr. Obama said.
The online discussion was hosted by Yahoo, MSN Latino and AOL Latino/Huffington Post Latino Voice.
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