Arguing "there's no reason we shouldn’t get immigration reform done right now," President Obama demanded on Monday for the umpteenth time that Congress pass his top legislative priority already.
So you can understand if he was a bit annoyed when, towards the end of his speech in San Francisco's Chinatown, pro-immigration activists started heckling.
"Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country right now!" one protester yelled. As Obama tried to respond, the shouting continued: "You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country!"
"Actually I don’t," Obama replied. "And that’s why we’re here."
A month earlier, Senator Ted Cruz was interrupted by anti-deportation activists, whom he nonsensically accused of being "President Obama’s paid political operatives," during a speech to a conservative conference. Immigration protesters have shadowed administration offiicials for years, popping up at Congressional hearings to target Janet Napolitano, who was in the audience for today's speech, and even occupying Obama's campaign offices in 2012.
These protesters are confronting a fundamental contradiction in Obama's record: he's made immigration reform his top second-term priority even as his administration has presided over record deportations.
After Senate Republicans filibustered the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to young undocumented immigrants, activists slowly convinced Obama to halt deportations for undocumented youth until Congress came around. Now they're demanding he do the same for the broader unauthorized immigrant community, or at the very least, for their parents and siblings who still face the threat of removal every day. After all, if you're fighting to get them on a path to citizenship, why would you want to kick them out? These arguments are likely to get louder if immigration reform dies in the House.
The president, however, has argued that such a sweeping move would require a change to the law. He repeated the claim on Monday.
"What you need to know, when I’m speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community, is that if, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so," he said Monday. "But we’re also a nation of laws. That’s part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws."
Politically, Republicans don't have an obvious way to exploit these tensions, but they are trying.
“Democrats are facing credibility problems, whether it is from Obamacare failures or massive deportations, that’s why you see the president’s approval ratings suffer," Izzy Santa, who handles Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee, told msnbc. "The fact is that Republicans continue to work on immigration reform, which is more than Democrats ever did when they controlled the White House and Congress.”
The RNC, which has backed efforts to pass immigration reform, may be able to tweak Obama a little over deportations. But the vast majority of Republicans in Congress are on record demanding even more aggressive deportations. The only House vote Republican leaders have allowed on the topic this year was an amendment by anti-immigration firebrand Steve King calling on the White House to deport DREAMers. It passed with almost unanimous Republican support.
It's true Democrats didn't pass immigration reform in Obama's first two years, when Democrats briefly had 60 votes in the Senate. But for most of that session they were stuck at 59 votes and the only Republican willing to negotiate with them, Senator Lindsey Graham, backed out in a procedural dispute. Mitt Romney tried the exact same "Where was Obama?" argument with Latino voters in 2012, even as he advocated "self-deportation" in debates. It didn't work.
Obama is doing his best to convince protesters which party to blame if reform collapses once again.
"Right now it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide if we can move forward as a country on this bill," Obama said. "If they don’t want to see it happen, they’ve got to explain why."
House Republican leaders have offered a variety of excuses lately as to why they haven't come up with an immigration plan of their own. The schedule's too tight, or they're mad at the White House over health care, or Obama is secretly trying to kill immigration reform with unrealistic demands so Democrats win Latino voters.
The president's goal this month has been to box them in by saying "yes" to their demands whenever possible. Speaker John Boehner doesn't like the Senate's bill? Fine, you can pass a bunch of smaller bills instead. They say I'm demonizing Republicans to scare them away from a bill? Well, I think the Speaker is just swell!
"The good news is, just this past week Speaker Boehner said that he is 'hopeful we can make progress' on immigration reform," Obama said. "And that is good news. I believe the Speaker is sincere. I think he genuinely wants to get it done. And that’s something we should be thankful for this week."
While Obama faces his own pressures, his refusal to back away from talks puts the onus on Boehner to prove his party can deal with the deportation issue at all. And right now there's no consensus within the party as to whether the country should let any undocumented immigrants remain, let alone get on a path to citizenship. Until they can start naming some demands, they're for self-deportation by default.
Watch Obama and the hecklers: