Immigrant rights groups on Monday demanded that President Obama impose a full moratorium on deportations of illegal immigrants, arguing that his policies have been worse for their cause than those of his Republican predecessor.
Saying they've been "betrayed" by and lost patience with Mr. Obama, the advocates suggested that the president could regain their support by leading a fight on Capitol Hill for a bill to legalize illegal immigrants. Mr. Obama took the first step toward legalization during a meeting Monday at the White House with two lawmakers working on a bill.
But a bill could take months to pass. In the meantime, the immigrant rights groups say, Mr. Obama must end deportations altogether.
"We demand an immediate stop to all deportations, because each one of these deportations, each one of these numbers, equals a life destroyed and a family devastated," Angelica Sala, executive director of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said at a news conference in Washington.
The government reported 387,790 deportations in fiscal 2009, which spanned the last few months of the George W. Bush administration and more than eight months of the Obama administration. That marked a small increase over fiscal 2008, when deportations totaled 369,221.
The Obama administration insists that its enforcement policies target unscrupulous employers and stop abusive practices that target illegal immigrants.
"This administration is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on those dangerous criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Matt Chandler.
Legalization versus enforcement has driven tense debate for years.
After his immigration proposal died in the Senate in 2007, Mr. Bush stepped up enforcement and deportations. He said Americans would not accept legalization because they did not trust the government to enforce the laws.
Last year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said enforcement was sufficient and that the focus should turn back to legalization.
Immigrant rights advocates are planning a major march on Washington on March 21 to pressure Congress to pass a legalization bill.
"It is showdown time," said Emma Lozano, executive director of Centro Sin Fronteras (Center Without Borders), a Chicago-based rights group.
Several participants said they are raising money to transport people to the march from across the country. One woman said children from Chicago churches are performing in the streets to raise money for some of the thousands of buses that organizers there are planning.
It's unclear whether Congress is ready for another battle on the politically volatile immigration issue. The 2007 effort failed when a majority of senators joined a filibuster to block a legalization bill.
Immigrant rights groups were furious when Mr. Obama dedicated just a few seconds of his State of the Union address in late January to the issue.
The White House insists that it is taking action behind the scenes, including Mr. Obama's meeting Monday with Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who are working on a bipartisan immigration bill.
Ahead of the meeting, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro reiterated Mr. Obama's principles: "He believes we must resolve the status of the 12 million people who are here illegally, that they should have to register, pay a penalty for breaking the law and meet other obligations of legal immigrants, such as learning English and paying taxes, or leave the country."
The news conference Monday highlighted a split on the issue of immigration enforcement.
The immigrant rights groups said they had thought Mr. Obama would reduce, not increase, enforcement. They warned Democrats that Hispanic and immigrant voters, who supported Mr. Obama and other Democrats by wide margins in the 2008 elections, might search for new champions.
Many of the biggest immigration rights coalitions were absent from the news conference, signaling that they are focusing their efforts on legislation rather than publicly criticizing the administration.
Ms. Napolitano told Congress in recent weeks that her department had racked up "massive amounts" of audits of businesses and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had set a record for deportations.
"We have deported more criminal aliens this year than ever before. We have removed more aliens from this country than ever before. Our numbers at ICE are unbelievable," she told a Senate hearing Feb. 24.
Homeland Security officials say they have curtailed, though not ended, raids on businesses, but have tried to force employers to let illegal immigrants go. They also have restructured agreements that allow state and local police to enforce immigration laws.
Immigrant rights advocates said they knew Mr. Obama would want to prove that he can enforce immigration laws before embarking on a major reform but expected a stronger push for an immigration bill in Congress.
"The Obama administration intentionally set out to show he was tougher than Bush," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
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