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Is Obama Still 'Deporter In Chief'?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to turn to an issue we follow closely on this program - immigration. And I want to mention that later in this program, we will remind you of some history that you may not know or remember, which is what brought another large group of immigrants to this country in an earlier era, but first to the news.

The White House has announced that it has ordered a fresh look at deportation practices. President Obama met with Latino activists on Friday to talk about the issue. One of the leaders at that meeting was Janet Murguia. She's head of the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest Latino civil rights groups in the country. She's with us now from her home in Washington, D.C. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

JANET MURGUIA: Sure, it's great to be with you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Fernando Espuelas. He's host and managing editor of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision. He's also with us from time to time, and he's with us from his Washington home as well. Thank you, Fernando, for joining us as well.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Janet Murguia, let me start with you. What came out of the meeting with President Obama?

MURGUIA: Well, I think it was a common goal and a unified front to agree to keep pushing Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans for a legislative solution. It's the only permanent fix to our broken immigration system. And we all agree that there is still a window of opportunity to see that happen, even though there was some question as to what the percentages are.

We want to make sure we will push for a legislative solution, and it has been part of our three-pronged strategy at the National Council of La Raza to push for a legislative fix to try to get some administrative release, and then to push, also, on an electoral front. And so we're working those strategies and trying to make sure that we're moving forward, and so we do want to make sure we can continue to keep pressure on the House Republicans.

But the president also agreed to review deportation policies, and we were encouraged by this action and by the fact that Secretary Jeh Johnson will be conducting and leading that review. We know that the president is sympathetic and feels the pain of family separation. We also believe that he can do more.

MARTIN: In fact, well, to that end, though, you also called him Deporter-in-Chief at an event earlier this month. Do you stand by that statement?

MURGUIA: Well, look, Michel, every day we hear new stories of families being torn apart and children losing their mothers and fathers. And the fact is, is that we're about a few days away from hitting the 2 million mark when it comes to the number of deportations that have occurred in this administration. It's more than any other president in the history of the U.S., and it's faster than any other administration has hit that high a mark.

And the majority of those folks are - who have been deported, are individuals without a criminal record. So for us, this is a real crisis, a humanitarian crisis in our community, and it is a fact. He has deported more individuals in his administration than any previous president.

MARTIN: OK. So, Fernando Espuelas, let's turn to you, that you've been critical of the tone. You, among others, have been critical of the tone that some Latino activists have been using in this policy debate to this point and also of the strategy. I mean, your argument - you argued in an interview that focusing on the, quote, magical realism power that Obama supposedly possesses actually detracts from or takes attention away from the real problem, which is this partisan divide, which has kept a bigger reform from taking place. So what's your concern here?

ESPUELAS: Yeah, well, I do think that this is, at the most basic level, an issue where one house of Congress has blocked immigration reform, even though there is a majority of the members of the house in favor of it. And I think whenever you take eye off of that reality and you introduce a new variant, the idea that the president can somehow break the law and achieve, as some activists have asked for, the end of all deportations, which would be in violation of the current immigration law, I think you start entering into a magic realism kind of space where I think the emotions and the frustrations are overwhelming people's good sense and good reason.

And just to some of the comments that Janet made, you know, completely in agreement that the focus should be on the Republicans, but I do think that the deportation statistics are being manipulated, not by Janet, but just in general. You know, ICE just published, late last week, a breakdown of the deportations. And in fact, half of them happen at the border - so people trying to come in. Roughly the, say 45 percent, of the rest of them actually fall into the category of criminals, and then there's about a 10,000 group of, quote-unquote, others, which is interpreted as the people Janet was just describing - people who have no record, who do not qualify for deportation.

But one of the issues that does come up, and I think this is something the president has to deal with, is that there's a bit of a blockade on executing his policy on the part of ICE. And you have the officers, the patrol - Border Patrol union being totally against stopping deportations, and in some ways, setting the tone far away from Washington that they can defy the president.

MARTIN: Janet Murguia, what about that? Do you...

MURGUIA: Well, I guess...

MARTIN: ...Think that that's true? And I guess, what I'm really wondering is - is it really that you feel that the president is not acting within the full scope of his authority? Or is he being thwarted by people within the system?

MURGUIA: Well, I think that's part of the challenge. But I guess I want to make sure I clarify that we're not asking the president to break the law. There's well-established stacks and stacks of legal opinions that support the position that the president can work within the authority he has and within the discretion that his policies, that he created, to allow him to do this within the law. And we're not asking him to protect criminals. So we believe that between the deferred action, the Deferred Enforced Departure, between the prosecutorial discretion that he already has, we want him to work within the laws.

And we understand he can't end all deportations precisely because of some of the problems and challenges with the ICE union members, but also because there are some folks who legitimately should be deported. All we're saying is that there needs to be a reduction, and he has the authority to reduce those and to protect those individuals who would otherwise qualify for the Senate-passed bill, parents of DREAMers and those folks connected to the DREAM individuals who are now staved from being deported because of an executive action that the president took.

MARTIN: OK, but a phrase like Deporter-in-Chief is not a phrase of nuance, and the criticism that some would argue is the degree to which you kind of put the focus on him...


MARTIN: ...Or his action within, what is a pretty - significant to the people involved, but as a part of the overall picture, fairly narrow slice of the pie, that you're diverting the law from where it really needs to be. What would you say to that?

MURGUIA: It's just not true. No one has run - no organization has run a tougher campaign against House Republicans and putting pressure on House Republicans than the National Council of La Raza. We have been sustained in our efforts and consistent in our efforts to move a legislative strategy. And I think folks would tell you that a lot of our efforts were part of a coalition that helped to get the Senate-passed bill because we moved a legislative strategy, and we have continued to put that pressure.

And in fact, I've made it very clear that NCLR is one of the few organizations - I know of no other organization that has already launched a campaign to sign up and register at least 250,000 new Latino voters for the midterm election in 2014.

MARTIN: Well, let's...

MURGUIA: ...We've made it very clear to the House Republicans that there will be political consequences that will be felt in 2014 and certainly in 2016. So we have, in addition to the pressure of lobbying and going to members districts - I was just last...


MURGUIA: ...Week in two Texas districts of Republicans making sure that we were telling them we're going to hold them accountable to move a bill forward in the House. And so...

MARTIN: OK, let's get Fernando a chance to...

MURGUIA: ...We're doing an awful lot to move...

MARTIN: Let's...

MURGUIA: ...Forward a legislative front that we think that we have to have some administrative relief, and it was in - the time that I made the comment about the president, it was really to make the point about how Speaker Boehner's comments, that we can't trust the president to force the law was a ridiculous assertion.

MARTIN: OK. Let's hear from - let's hear another - no, excuse me, Janet, let's have another conversation. Let's have another point of view on this. Fernando, what about that point? I mean, you cannot dismiss the fact that Latinos were a significant part of the president's winning coalition.


MARTIN: Why shouldn't they then hold him accountable for doing whatever it is that he can do? I mean, isn't this, in some ways, within the scope of the same kind of arguments some African Americans activists have had about his efforts to alleviate poverty?


MARTIN: They can say, look, on the one hand, we support you. We still don't forfeit the right to make demands of you. What about that?

ESPUELAS: Right, well, I mean, I think that something has been skipped over in this conversation, which is that the president is enforcing the law, meaning that, I mean, this is common knowledge. I'm not sure why it's not brought into the conversation. The Congress - for the last four or five years, the president has asked for a maximum number of deportations.

The Congress has returned with a minimum number, which is higher than the maximum that the president asked for and the funding to do it. So the question then becomes, does the president violate what the Congress has instructed him to do?

And on what basis does that help the situation, which at the end of the day, can only be helped by a true act of Congress. And I think what's happened is that, aside from Council of La Raza, there are many organizations that are, for lack of a better word, perhaps more - I don't know, more emotional, less strategic.

And they confuse what is the deferred action for the Mini-DREAM Act in which the premise of it was very simple - was because children are not responsible for their actions, therefore, the fact that their parents brought them into this country does not consign them a status that is deportable. That's the legal logic behind it. But the parents, however wonderful people they are, they are living here without the appropriate documentation, and whether that's deportable are not in general...


ESPUELAS: ... It is the deportable according to law.


ESPUELAS: What the president has said is, only if you're a criminal will you be deported.


ESPUELAS: ... And that's where you get into the execution part.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now. Fernando Espuelas is host and managing editor of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision. Janet Murguia is President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. They were both joining us from their homes where they're snowed in in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MURGUIA: Take care. Thank you.

ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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