Having allowed Janet Napolitano and John Morton to mold immigration enforcement into Arizona’s image, the president is in an uncomfortable position as the heads of DHS and of ICE end their tenure.  Their attempt to appear tough on enforcement to win reform credentials with conservatives has placed the administration to the right of some Republicans by continuing to deport the very people that both parties agree deserve legalization.

The fact that people continue to be torn from their loved ones at the same time the president and others advocate for their inclusion only adds insult to injury. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners told the New York Times in February, “Enforcing a broken system aggressively right before we’re about to change it is not just not compassionate, it’s cruel.”

Luckily for the president and for those victimized by the current broken system, such cruelty is optional.  Building upon prosecutorial discretion and the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, the president has it in his executive authority to expand the relief he’s granted dream-eligible youth to their parents, neighbors, and the other potential citizens who are watching the Congressional debate closely.

In fact, if and when the president will stop prolonging the suffering of people in deportation proceedings and use his authority has become a repeated question any time he addresses Spanish language media. As limitations of the Senate bill are being reported and a few obstructionist legislators seek to imperil progress, hundreds of organizations have looked to the administration to take action and help break a possible logjam. His response to whether he will step in: “Probably not. I think that it is very important for us to recognize that the way to solve this problem has to be legislative.  I can do some things and have done some things that make a difference in the lives of people by determining how our enforcement should focus.”

Obama’s words are an echo of the response he told dreamers prior to announcing DACA, the deferred action program that granted them work permits and legal status that protects them from deportation.  As pressure mounted on the administration to grant relief to immigrant youth in 2010, the president tried to deflect, saying, “I know there are some folks who think I should bypass Congress. I can’t. But what I can do is sign a law…” But the DREAM Act failed to clear Congress and the President reversed his position and took action in both a moral and strategic move that transformed the landscape on immigration.

For undocumented people who weren’t included in DACA, the situation today looks even more dire than what moved him to action a year ago.  People with deportation dates before Congress returns from recess like Israel Lopez Bautista, a day laborer in the president’s hometown of Chicago who was arrested when ICE agents raided the street corner where he looks for work, or Luciana Hernandez Ocampo, one of the latest victims of Sheriff Arpaio’s ongoing raids in Arizona, are ready for the president to be more than a bystander in the debate.

Imagine how different the conversation would be and how much stronger reform’s prospects would look if the president told obstructionist Republicans that deportations are suspended until a legalization bill is passed, as some of his own advisors have recommended. 

The same legal expertise that proved Obama has the executive authority to implement DACA applies to his authority to broaden it.  As United We Dream’s Lorella Praeli stated then, “It’s not a question of whether the president can or can’t. It’s a question of whether he will or he won’t.” Until he is doing everything in his power, we’ll hold the president to the same standards as Congress. The fate of at least 44,000 people expected to be deported during the August recess alone depends on it.

Alvarado is the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

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