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President Takes Step to Ease Escalating Deportations, Backlash

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President Obama, seen here at the East Room of the White House on March 13, 2014. SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

Facing the possibility another ally would confront him on deportations, President Barack Obama took a step on Thursday toward slowing removals of immigrants from the country.

Obama met with three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had debated just hours before whether to escalate its demand that he slow the nearly 2 million deportations that have occurred under his watch.

In the White House meeting, Obama told caucus members he was instructing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review current practices and see how the agency can “conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.”

“The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system,” the White House said in a statement about the meeting.

Members of the caucus will meet with Johnson when they return from next week’s congressional break, said Rep. Xavier Becerra, the House Democratic Caucus chairman.

The leader of one group that has been highly critical of Obama remained skeptical. “Relief delayed is relief denied,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network. “The president has no excuse to continue his unjust deportation policy.”

The White House announcement came shortly after Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, House Minority Whip, said the House would use a procedural tactic known as a discharge petition to try to force a vote on immigration reform legislations. The petition, which must be signed by 218 members of the House to have any effect, is to be filed after members return March 24.

The president’s action spared the Latino caucus a tough vote on whether to issue a resolution demanding that Obama address deportations as had been proposed last week. The president’s invitation came Thursday morning before the caucus met.

Texas Democratic Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman, called the outcome a big victory. Along with Hinojosa, Becerra, D-Calif., and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., also were in the meeting with Obama.

“He agreed that it has become difficult for a lot of families and we agreed we need to head in a direction that gets us to a permanent fix, but that addresses the effect that a broken immigration system is having on immigrant families,” Becerra said.

Gutiérrez, who had proposed a resolution from the caucus last week, said the president wants caucus members to look at a menu of options that will be discussed with Johnson when they return. But even though Congress is out next week, Gutiérrez said he’ll break from recess next Wednesday to meet with Johnson to discuss the parameters of their meeting the following week.

“I think today we were able to focus this administration on the pain our people feel and work more collaboratively in getting to our goal,” Gutiérrez said.

Demand has been growing from parts of the immigrant advocacy community for Obama to address deportations.

For months Obama had been giving Republican leaders space to work with its rank and file on the issue. He said several times he could not suspend deportations on his own and that Congress should take action to fix all problems in the immigration system.

But once House Speaker John Boehner announced immigration reform was unlikely this year, advocates upped the pressure on Obama to use his executive powers to deal with the deportations. Last week, Janet Murguía, the president of the usually supportive National Council of La Raza, called Obama the “Deporter in Chief.”

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who has pressed for drastic action from the president, said Thursday the immigration reform effort had reached a crossroads. “What do we do, watch the suffering or intervene and ask the president to do something about relieving that suffering?” he said before the White House meeting.

Hinojosa emphasized that the “Republican Party is responsible” for the actions that the president and Democrats are taking because they have not brought immigration reform legislation to a vote.

Republicans have drafted a handful of bills addressing various aspects of immigration but none have received a vote from the full House.

Because of the president's decision, the Hispanic caucus did not adopt a resolution.