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With the House Stalled on Any Immigration Legislation, Young Immigrants Focus on President Obama

More than 500 leaders for the networks of young immigrants, frustrated with House Republicans’ failure to move on immigration this year so far, have decided to turn their protests on President Obama in an effort to pressure him to act unilaterally to stop deportations.

Months of lobbying, rallies and sit-in demonstrations have not brought any movement in the House on a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. The youths who gathered in Phoenix last week for an annual congress of the network, United We Dream, have voiced severe disappointment by Republicans and Democrats who seem to not be moving over political reasons more than a true desire to reform immigration. Pointing to Mr. Obama’s promise earlier this year to use his own powers when Congress would not move on this agenda, they now demand that he take executive action to increase protections for immigrants without papers.

“The community we work with is telling us that these deportations are ripping our families apart; this has to stop,” said Cristina Jiménez, the managing director of the network, the largest organization of immigrants who grew up in this country without legal status after coming as children and who call themselves Dreamers. “And we know the president has the power to do it.”

These young immigrants’ demands will be uncomfortable for Mr. Obama in a midterm election year when his low approval ratings could allow Republicans to make important gains. Polls show wider sympathy among Americans for young immigrants than for others without legal status, and these young people have often been leaders in setting strategy among immigrant groups.

One thing these youth are pressing the president to expand is the deportation deferrals he provided by executive action in 2012.  So far, more than 520,000 young people have received deferrals, allowing them to work legally and obtain driver’s licenses in many states. The program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has been very popular among Latino and immigrant voters, and Mr. Obama has cited it as an example of his commitment to overhaul the immigration system.

However, with the focus now on Mr. Obama, the youths are sharply scaling back their expectations. Last year, after a comprehensive immigration bill passed the Senate, which gave them hope that the House would follow through and also open a direct pathway to citizenship for most of 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the country.

This month, House Republican leaders offered principles on immigration, including legalization but not citizenship for most of those immigrants. But days later, Speaker John A. Boehner said his caucus was not ready to move forward on the divisive issue this year.

Lorella Praeli, a leader of the youth network, told the gathering here that Republicans had adopted a strategy of “death by delay” for immigration. But network leaders did not appear disheartened. An organization that only a few years ago held its meetings clandestinely to avoid detection by immigration authorities, the network held its congress this year in the Sheraton hotel in downtown Phoenix. They filled the main ballroom with strategy debates, protest singalongs and group hugs. Other guests were surprised to encounter slogan-chanting youths parading through the lobby.

The decision to choose Phoenix, leaders said, was to confront Republican Gov. Jan Brewer who has not allowed youths with deportation deferrals to apply for driver’s licenses, like other states have.

In Washington, a perception gap has emerged over enforcement, with House Republicans arguing that Mr. Obama has been lax on illegal immigration and border security, so they cannot trust him to enforce any new law. House Democrats and administration officials have countered by citing figures that show that Mr. Obama has deported more than 1.9 million foreigners, a record for an American president.

These youths here said they had no doubts about the impact of the Obama administration’s deportation policies, because their families felt they were under siege from immigration authorities. “We can’t wait for Washington to continue playing around with our lives,” said Julieta Garibay, another network leader. “Our people see deportations every single day. They say, ‘Maybe this might be the last day I get to see my mom because she might get deported tomorrow.’ We’re fed up with that.”

These youths are seeking from Mr. Obama to use his powers to cut back programs that have greatly expanded the local reach of federal immigration authorities and to grant deportation deferrals to undocumented parents of youths who had received them. Although the president has resisted in moving forward on what those individuals are seeking, he has recently hinted that he might revisit that position if legislation remained stalled.

In spite of the inertia in Washington, these youths, who represented over 50 organizations in 25 states, said their ranks grew rapidly last year as measures to expand opportunities for them advanced in many states. At least 18 states now allow foreign-born students without legal residency to pay in-state tuition rates. The continuing efforts of these youths and their organizations show that they are not giving up entirely on legislation efforts and planned drives in several districts in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas to register and mobilize Latino voters against Republicans who have resisted legalization.