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WASHINGTON – President Obama insisted Thursday that he's not the "deporter in chief," as critics have labeled him, but the "champion in chief" of a fairer immigration policy.
But until Congress passes a new law, Obama said, he is constrained by current statutes in how he treats immigrants who entered the country illegally.
"I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books," Obama said. "That's why it's important to get comprehensive immigration reform done this year."
Support for that view among reform advocates is splintering, a fact becoming clearer by the day. The president of the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Latino advocacy organization, this week coined "deporter in chief" for the Democratic president, with whom the group has worked in the past.
Then Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Obama's fellow Illinois Democrat, used the same phrase on the House floor as he complained about Obama's policy of continuing to deport immigrants here illegally.
When Obama sat down for a town-hall meeting Thursday, hoping to boost Latino enrollment in health insurance plans, one of the hosts started off by asking about the "deporter-in- chief" comment.
"I am the champion in chief of comprehensive immigration reform," Obama said. He pointed out that his administration has turned its focus away from deporting young immigrants brought to this country when they were children and instead put the priority on immigrants in the country illegally who are involved in criminal or gang activity.
But in so doing, he said, he has already stretched his administrative capacity.
"At a certain point," he said, he has to enforce the laws on the books even while pushing to change them.
Reform advocates think otherwise. Gutierrez has harshly criticized the GOP for blocking change in the laws but argues that while Obama seeks such change he can carry out a fairer policy using his executive power.
"Republicans can either be participants in how this country advances more sensible immigration policies or they can simply sit on the sidelines while the president does it with his phone and pen," Gutierrez said this week.