By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — It’s a shame President Obama was in the Philippines on Monday, because the former Chicago community organizer missed the chance to see his White House being picketed — by a Chicago-based group of community organizers.
Obama met with immigration activists last month, urging them not to protest his record level of deportations but to focus instead on House Republicans, who are blocking immigration reform.
On Monday, activists let him know what they thought of that advice.
Several hundred demonstrators assembled by the National People’s Action, a network of community organizing groups, massed on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, marching behind a banner announcing, “Pres. Obama: Your legacy, our future.” A dozen Latinos — some in the country illegally, organizers said — sat in front of the White House gate, inviting the U.S. Park Police to arrest them, which they did.
“Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” they shouted before receiving their plastic handcuffs.
Listen, Obama. We are in the fight.
George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, appreciated the oddity of the community organizing network protesting Obama. “I don’t think any of us that were celebrating on his first inauguration would have imagined that we’d be witnessing him deport more people than any president in U.S. history,” said Goehl, who arranged the demonstration along with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (A group of immigration hunger-strikers already had been on the scene for three weeks.)
Why don’t Goehl and the others limit their efforts to pressuring House Republicans, as Obama suggested? “We’re convinced that the president has the power to stop deportations and provide deferred action for millions of undocumented immigrants,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want to wait around and find out what happens on the Hill” — even if unilateral action by the president dooms chances for comprehensive legislation.
You can’t blame immigration activists for their frustration. Obama broke his 2008 promise to move an immigration bill in his first year. And his administration has deported more people than any previous administration (the 2 million he sent away in five years were as many as George W. Bush deported in eight), including a large number who had committed no criminal offenses.
But the pressure from his liberal base puts Obama in a tough spot. Last month, he directed the Department of Homeland Security to study ways to have more “humane” deportation enforcement, but the prospect of eased enforcement infuriated congressional Republicans. The actions Obama has taken to relax deportation (much of it related to the so-called dreamers, illegal immigrants who were brought here as children) prompted a group of 22 Republican senators to send a letter to Obama last week saying his “actions demonstrate an astonishing disregard for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the rights of American citizens and legal residents.”
A further easing could poison whatever slim chances remain for immigration legislation. But, with luck, the threat of unilateral action by Obama could pressure House Republicans to do something about immigration. In recent days, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, mocked his colleagues for their resistance to passing an immigration bill, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the No. 4 House Republican, told the Spokesman-Review of Spokane that she sees a “path” to having immigration on the House floor by August. That would be when Republicans are no longer threatened by tea party primary challenges.
In the meantime, Obama will just have to endure the growing anger of some of the very people who sent him to the White House.
Outside the gates Monday morning, demonstrators spoke through a bullhorn about relatives’ ordeals with deportations. As the crowd sang Joan Baez’s “No Nos Moveran” (“We Shall Not Be Moved”), a dozen demonstrators, some carrying photos of deported kin, came forward to be arrested in an illegal sit-in.
Park police sealed off the area with yellow “crime scene” tape, while a police lieutenant warned through a loudspeaker that they faced arrest.
They responded with a chant of “Si, se puede.” Yes, we can.
After a second warning, they responded with another verse of “No Nos Moveran.”
After a third and final warning, they responded with a chant, in English, revising a phrase from Obama’s famous call-and-response: “We’re fired up. Can’t take it no more.”
Those practicing civil disobedience rose, some smiling and all without resistance, to be cuffed, frisked and led off in police vans. The crowd chanted, “La lucha sigue, sigue.”
The fight continues.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.