President Obama on Wednesday reiterated his commitment to overhauling U.S. immigration laws, but said those who want him to do it without Congress are doing "a great disservice" to the cause.
In a roundtable with Latino journalists, Mr. Obama outlined his plan to increase border security while also providing a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants, known as the DREAM Act.
"Our administration has supported the basic concept that we are a nation of laws" Mr. Obama said, adding "we're also a nation of immigrants" and "we have to create a system that works for all of us."
But the president disputed the idea, proposed by some immigration activists, that he could take executive action to help immigrants while waiting for Congress to approve the DREAM Act.
"This notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true," Mr. Obama told the reporters. "There are laws on the books that I have to enforce. I think that there's been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed... by perpetrating the notion that by myself I can go and do these things."
Immigration activists argue that because the Senate rejected the DREAM Act in late 2010, Mr. Obama could simply use his executive power to halt deportations among those to whom it would apply - namely students and young people who were brought to the United States illegally while children.
Mr. Obama dismissed that idea, arguing that "we live in a democracy" and that, as a result, "you have to pass bills through the legislature and then I can sign it."
Still, he said the White House was making efforts to "prioritize enforcement" of those immigration laws on the books - given that "there are limited enforcement resources" - and that in doing so the administration has been "making sure that we're focusing on violent criminals, people who are a threat to society" rather than students for deportation.
When asked if he thought it was time Americans saw a Latino candidate on the presidential ballot, Mr. Obama said he was "certain" he would see a Latino candidate in his lifetime.
"I am absolutely certain that within my lifetime we will have a Latino candidate for president who is very competitive and who may win," he said. "Just look at the demographics. Just look at a state like Texas, where it will, within my lifetime, be a majority Latino."
The challenge, he said, was getting Hispanics to vote with the full force of their demographic power.
"With numbers come political power," Mr. Obama said. "Are folks registering? Are they voting? We still have not seen the kinds of participation levels that are necessary to match up the numbers with actual political power."
"My hope is that in 2012, in 2016, in 2020 you continually see participation rates increase more and more for Latinos and that will inevitably lead to both parties, I think, being more responsive to Latino issues," he continued. "If you're voting at a low rate then you are giving up some of your power. If you're voting at a high rate then you're going to have more influence. That's true of every single group."