Obama puts off overhaul; supporters call it ‘betrayal’

With President Obama putting off the immigration reform debate until next year, immigrant rights groups are pushing the administration to suspend tough enforcement practices so illegal immigrants aren’t punished under the current system.

While acknowledging the need for an overhaul, Mr. Obama last week acknowledged during a visit to Mexico that his agenda is too full and said a solution will have to wait until next year at the earliest — a backtrack from his campaign pledge to sign a bill in 2009.

With immigration reform slipping away, rights groups have begun to use words such as “betrayal” in describing how they feel they are faring under the Obama administration, and several have said the only interim solution would be to suspend some enforcement so illegal immigrants don’t get caught up in a system that advocates contend is broken.

“While a delay in enacting immigration reform is far from ideal, there are immediate actions that the Obama administration can take to ameliorate the human suffering caused by the misguided focus on failed enforcement measures,” said Oscar Chalon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities.

The White House referred questions about halting or modifying enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security, where Secretary Janet Napolitano has been fielding questions about the administration’s approach as she travels the country.

In an address at a border conference last week, Ms. Napolitano seemed to pour cold water on the calls for leniency.

“Our job is to enforce the laws that we have now, to do it intelligently, to do it with well-trained professionals who are well-supervised,” she said. “We will enforce this law smartly and intelligently, and if and when — and I believe it is when — the law changes, we will be prepared to enforce that law as well.”

She defended the use of a program of electronic worker verification, known as e-verify, to track illegal immigration and said using local police to enforce the laws under a program known as 287(g) is worthwhile, though she said Mr. Obama has added more accountability to the program than existed in the previous administration.

Mr. Obama has been walking a tightrope on the issue after winning a large majority of Hispanic votes in the 2008 election. He has stepped up some enforcement measures even as he says he wants a solution that would include legalization of illegal immigrants. But he also has pushed back the timetable for action until next year at the earliest, saying immigration is in line behind “a pretty big stack of bills.”

What those interim steps should be depends on one’s point of view.