- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2014

After two years of playing offense, immigrant rights groups suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves playing political defense, pushing back against proposals to speed up deportations of people surging across the border illegally even while advocates plead with the White House to take politically risky executive action to halt deportations in the interior.

The advocates say they have “an audience of one” — President Obama, who for his career in Washington, stretching back to his days as a senator, has tantalized them with promises of action and even delivered some victories, but at times has seemed a reluctant partner.

“Right now his legacy is at stake and he has the opportunity to redefine what it means to be President Obama,” said Lorella Praeli, policy director for United We Dream, an advocacy group that pressured Mr. Obama two years ago to grant tentative legal status to illegal immigrant young adults and now wants that policy expanded to include most illegal immigrant parents.

SEE ALSO: In politics, all states are ‘border’ states

Mr. Obama was initially cool to the idea of halting more deportations, denying he had the legal authority.

But under intense pressure by advocates and shamed by the movement’s leaders who dubbed him “deporter in chief,” Mr. Obama warmed to the plan and even set deadlines for himself to act.

Then came the border surge, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families from Central America trying to cross into the U.S. and counting on immigration authorities to release them so they could gain a foothold in the interior of the country.

SEE ALSO: GOP Senate candidate: Obama needs to visit Central America

Advocates argue that the two issues are separate, but many Americans see them as the same and have reacted negatively.

A majority a CNN/ORC International poll last week said the most important thing in the immigration debate is to secure the border. That was a reversal from February, when a majority said legalizing illegal immigrants was more important than border security.

“In the early part of this decade, a solid majority consistently said that the main focus of the U.S. government should be stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and deporting those already in the country. But in 2012, that flipped dramatically, with a solid majority believing that the government’s main focus should be on a plan to allow illegal immigrants to become legal U.S. residents,” CNN polling director Keating Holland told the network. “Now — and in a matter of months — the pendulum has swung back.”

Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which calls for stricter enforcement, said the public has always been skeptical of legalization. She said the real change from the surge has been in attitudes in Congress.

“This is what amnesty looks like. This chaos on the border is the direct and predictable consequence of amnesty,” she said. “I don’t think the politicians are there yet, but I do think they are beginning to see, ‘Hey, wait a minute, actions have consequences.’”

Immigrant rights advocates now are fighting on two fronts: They are trying to stop changes to a 2008 law that would make it easier to deport the children arriving at the border, and they are trying to keep pressure on Mr. Obama to take unilateral action to stop deportations of longtime illegal immigrants.

Mr. Obama took unilateral action with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted tentative legal status to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.

“Mostly the Republican Party is trying to use the humanitarian crisis right now,” said Oliver Merino, 25, of Monroe, North Carolina, who was protesting outside of the White House on Monday.

“This mixed message comes from just a specific group: people in the Senate and in the House of Representatives who are advocating for the termination of DACA and would in consequence put in deportation proceedings people like us, people like me.”

Even as they fight with the White House, the advocacy groups are in danger of splitting with one another.

On Monday, they held separate rallies outside the White House with different messages.

United We Dream organized a midday rally with more than 100 people to pressure Mr. Obama to “go big” by taking executive action.

Minutes after that rally ended, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network had about 20 people set up a picket line outside of one of the White House entrances, demanding that other immigration advocacy groups refuse to attend meetings with Mr. Obama until he includes illegal immigrants in those sessions.

“No more meetings about us, without us,” the pickets chanted, saying the voices of illegal immigrants themselves have been ignored in the White House.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network targeted three groups: the National Immigration Forum, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Center for American Progress, which is a liberal think tank closely associated with the White House.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the forum, posted a Twitter message saying he missed the advocates because he was at the dentist, but urged Mr. Obama to meet with them — though he stopped short of saying he would agree to their call for a boycott.

“I agree, POTUS should meet with undocumented families to understand what is at stake,” he said in one of his messages, using the acronym for “president of the United States.”

He also pointed out that Mr. Obama has met with so-called dreamers, the young adults who obtained tentative legal status under the deferred action program but are still considered to be illegal immigrants.

Overshadowing the internal fight is the distrust of Mr. Obama among immigrant advocates.

One of the advocates picketing Monday, Rosi Carrasco, said she believed Mr. Obama was intentionally trying to produce a split within the immigrant rights movement by scheduling meetings with some groups and not with others, or with illegal immigrants.

“I want to believe that the president will do the right thing,” she said. She would not say she was confident that Mr. Obama would meet her expectations on halting deportations.

She has much at stake in his decision. She came to the country 20 years ago and is in the U.S. illegally. She said she came forward after her two daughters, both of them dreamers, applied for and received tentative legal status.

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