President Obama said Monday that he does not have the power to suspend deportations, putting the nail in a plan some administration officials had explored that could have granted de-facto legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
A number of immigrant-rights advocates have called on the president to use executive authority to stop deportations, and memos surfaced last year showing that Homeland Security lawyers had looked into the legal implications. But Mr. Obama, in a town hall hosted by the Spanish-language Univision broadcast network, said that’s not an option.
“There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply, through executive order, ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president,” Mr. Obama said.
The answer came in response to a videotaped question from a girl who held up a deportation order document and asked why students were still receiving those, even though many lawmakers and Mr. Obama himself believe they should be granted legal status.
The immigration issue has dogged Mr. Obama since he took office.
During the presidential campaign, he promised early action on legislation to legalize most illegal immigrants, granting them a path to citizenship, but that took a back seat as he put his efforts into other priorities such as health care.
Late last year, the president backed a doomed effort to have Congress pass the Dream Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrant students and young adults. That bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate, blocked by a bipartisan filibuster.
On Monday, at the Univision town hall, Mr. Obama said most Democrats supported the Dream Act, but it couldn’t gain enough support within the Republican Party to pass.
“I believe that we can still get it done,” he said. “But it’s going to be very important for all the viewers of Univision, all the students who are interested in this issue, we’ve got to keep the pressure up on Congress.”
Still, immigrant-rights groups have called for him to go further, and they have led petition drives and a voter education campaign called “No More Deportations” to try to pressure the president to halt deportations.
“If there’s not going to be immigration reform, then halt the deportations and stop separating our families,” Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Alliance of Latin America and Caribbean Communities, said at a news conference in Washington earlier this month.
The administration explored those options last year.
A draft memo last year showed that staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services thought the administration could follow through on back-door options to stopping deportations, or what the authors said was “a non-legislative version of amnesty.”
After the memo came to light, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ruled out using those methods to legalize broad groups of illegal immigrants, and Mr. Obama seemed to close the door even further Monday, saying he must enforce the laws.
Still, he said his administration has shifted the focus of deportations to criminal aliens.
“We want to focus our resources on those folks who are destructive to the community,” he said.