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Deporter-In-Chief Label Ups the Pressure for Action from Obama

Image: ICE Detains And Deports Undocumented Immigrants From Arizona

A security contractor frisks a female immigration detainee from Honduras ahead of a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. John Moore / Getty Images

President Barack Obama is being tagged with a new label - deporter in chief - that is coming from a usual Latino ally and his own party.

Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the pre-eminent Latino organizations, called Obama “deporter in chief” in a speech at the organization’s gala Tuesday.

The President clearly heard what was said. On Thursday, at a town hall on Latino health care enrollment, Obama said "I am the champion in chief of comprehensive immigration reform," when asked a question about enrollment information and immigration status. He added he had to enforce the laws passed by Congress.

Murguia's statement was intended to deride Obama for at or near 2 million people deported under his watch and to pressure him to use presidential powers to reduce deportations. It also served as a slam on House Republican claims that they can't go forward with immigration reform legislation because they don't trust the president to enforce U.S. law.

“Seriously? Failing to enforce our laws? For us, this president has been the deporter in chief,” Murguía said in her gala speech.

The deporter-in-chief term had been used previously against Obama by immigration groups that are more left than NCLR. Pablo Alvarado, president of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, used the term in a news release after Obama spoke at NCLR’s 2011 annual conference. But NCLR's criticism adds a whole new level of pressure to the president and members of Congress, some of whom have themselves begun asking Obama to reduce deportations.

“The community has spoken. These big organizations have aligned themselves with the community. It’s now an opportunity for one of two actors, either the president or the House to take action,” said Gabby Pacheco, an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. illegally, but whose deportation was temporarily waived through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, program.

Pacheco said NCLR's tougher stand gives the president cover to move forward on immigration. NCLR is an umbrella group for hundreds of organizations that provide health, housing, financial, immigration and other services to the Latino community.

A similar pattern occurred before the Obama administration initiated the DACA program, Pacheco said.

“As soon as the senators gave their backing and gave their okay, that’s when we were able to see a chance with the DACA program,” said Pacheco, executive director of the Bridge Project, an immigration reform group.

Although he didn’t use the deporter-in-chief label, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also called for action on deportations at Tuesday's gala. “I urge the president to take action today and halt needless deportations that are splitting our families and communities,” Menendez said. He urged the president to end deportations of relatives of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and young people who arrived illegally in the country with their parents.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also called for a reduction in deportations, Politico reported. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has asked said deportations should be limited to people who have committed felonies and other crimes and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he hoped the president would take "do what he can to take a look at deportations."

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., hung the moniker on Obama from the House floor where he compared the president's immigration enforcement record to his precedessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He gave Obama five gold stars while deriding Republicans mistrust claims. "Five stars _ the highest rank we give out _ and it goes to the Deporter in Chief President Barack Obama," Gutierrez said.

Democratic political strategist Maria Cardona said Murguía’s use of deporter in chief for Obama was more of a blast on Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner.

“She was putting the onus on the president the way NCLR always has,” Cardona said. “But the deporter in chief comment came from her taking Boehner to task for his lame excuse and not moving on immigration.”

Luis Miranda, former White House spokesman for Latino media and a political strategist, said no one would consider Murguía's comments an attack on the president. He said the missive was "as much a call to action as anything else."

As they seek votes from Hispanics, Republicans have often spoken of broken promises by the president, pointing to health care and the economy. Some will also remind Latinos that Obama promised to get immigration reform done.

But two Republican Latinos declined to cheer Murguía in pasting the label on Obama. When asked about the label, New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez, the first Hispanic female elected governor, said “we have to respect the presidency and he is the president of the United States … that person deserves the respect of the leader of a free country.” She had not seen Murguía’s speech, she said Wednesday.

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, who was announcing a GOP initiative to recruit more diverse candidates, said the president “deserves all our respect.” But he added that the Hispanic community had high hopes that Obama would provide leadership to move immigration reform. “We all know that did not occur,” Fortuño said. “There is not need to resort to name calling.”

However, the label may hurt Democrats with Latinos. Carlos Martinez, chair of the College Democrats of America Hispanic Caucus, tweeted about the impact of Murguia’s comment.

In a telephone interview, he said the deporter in chief label was demeaning to the president and to NCLR, “to stoop to something like that.” It is also divisive at a time when “we need a united front” on immigration, he said.

“That kind of label is not going to help our cause in the Latino community,” said Martinez, who helped organize votes for Obama in 2102 on the University of Texas campus, where he is a junior.

“People like me we try to be loyal to our party and our party’s head but we are also loyal to our communities, but in our communities, we are seeing people deported,” Martinez said.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, also was cautious in insisting "no family should be torn apart." Asked to comment on Murguía's choice of word, Hinojosa, D-Texas, said the caucus "agrees that only Congress can deliver a permanent solution to this problem" of a broken immigration system.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he welcomed NCLR’s support for severely reducing deportations. Though he seemed reluctant to endorse the deporter-in-chief label, he said it is “a choice of language I think certainly is accurate. He has deported more than anyone.”

Meanwhile, the League of United Latin American Citizens' most important objective remains trying to get Congress to move on immigration reform. Shifting pressure to the president would mean they have given up on that, and they LULAC believes its still possible to get reform this year, said Brent Wilkes, LULAC's executive director.