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Obama dismisses 'deporter-in-chief' slam

President Barack Obama adjusts his earpiece during a town hall event with television hosts Jose Diaz Balart and Enrique Acevedo, far left, at the Newseum in Washington, on March 6, 2014.
President Barack Obama adjusts his earpiece during a town hall event with television hosts Jose Diaz Balart and Enrique Acevedo, far left, at the Newseum in Washington, on March 6, 2014.

President Barack Obama is dismissing his new “deporter-in-chief” label.

At a town-hall-style meeting with Latinos on Thursday in Washington, D.C., Obama insisted he is really the “champion-in-chief” when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform.

His declaration comes two days after Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza – the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group and typically a White House ally – skewered Obama’s deportation of approximately 2 million immigrants.

“For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief,” she said at a gala. “Any day now, his administration will reach the 2 million mark for deportations. It is a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors and leaves behind it a wake of devastation for families across America.”

Democratic Sens. Bob Mendedez of New Jersey and Dick Durbin of Illinois have also called on Obama to ease the deportation of illegal immigrants while Congress considers reform.

Obama insisted at the town hall, which took place at the Newseum, that since he ran for president he has pushed for comprehensive immigration reform. But until Congress passes new legislation, he’s “constrained in terms of what I am able to do….I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any of the other laws that are on the books.”

Last summer, the Senate passed immigration reform legislation that would provide temporary legal status and a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. House Republicans do not support the plan, claiming they prefer a piecemeal approach.

The president held the event to encourage Latinos to sign up for the new health care exchanges before the March 31 deadline. He noted that one in four uninsured Americans are Latino and tried to assuage concerns from mixed-status families that personal information entered when signing up could be used for deportation services.  

“None of the information that is provided in order for you to obtain health insurance is in any way transferred to immigration services,” said Obama. “… While we’re waiting to get comprehensive immigration reform done, I don’t want a young person out there to get sick who could have had health insurance.”

The town hall also comes just a day after the White House announced another delay in Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. Now, Americans with health insurance the government considers substandard are able to keep the policies for an additional two years.

The president first extended the policies last fall after some insurers sent cancellation notices to customers whose current policies don’t meet the coverage standards of the law. Republicans immediately pounced, pointing to Obama’s promise that those Americans who like their insurance plans can keep them.

At the town hall, Obama insisted the decision wasn’t a tacit recognition that the part of the law is a mistake. With complex laws, he said there’s “always going to be some smoothing out.”

Some Republicans are now charging that the Obama Administration is playing politics and instituted the delay before the November midterm elections, in which several Senate and congressional Democrats face tough re-election prospects. Without the delay, another round of policy cancellations were expected.

When asked if Obama would consider extending the March 31 deadline, the president said no. “We’re going to enforce the deadline,” he said.

The president also dismissed the claim that his credibility on immigration has been tarnished, pointing to his effort to expand access to college for Latino students, helping keep Latino families out of poverty during the great recession, expanding health insurance for legal residents and children and making sure so-called “Dreamers” – undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them into the country illegally during their youth—are not subject to deportations.

“I think the community understands that I’ve got their back and I’m fighting for them,” Obama said.