The President's potential change of heart and call for reform of the United States Deportation System could help calm tensions in the ongoing hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Detainees have been refusing to eat, protesting deportation rules and the way they're treated at the center.
With prospects for an immigration overhaul in Congress appearing ever dimmer, immigration advocates have been ramping up pressure on Obama to halt all deportations - a step Obama has insisted he can't take by himself. By announcing he's open to changing how the U.S. enforces its current laws, Obama is signaling he may be growing more inclined to test the limits of his authority in the face of congressional inaction.
Obama's announcement came Thursday in a meeting with Latino lawmakers who are seeking ways to resuscitate an immigration overhaul despite resistance from Republicans and election-year politics that have confounded their efforts. The White House said Obama told the lawmakers - all Democrats - that he's deeply concerned about the pain that families suffer when they are separated due to a broken immigration system.
"He told the members that he has asked Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to do an inventory of the Department's current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law," the White House said in a statement.
A White House spokesman declined to answer questions about what the government could do to make deportation more humane or the timeline for Johnson to report back to the president.
But immigration activists will likely call for Obama to halt deportations for parents of children brought to the U.S. illegally, among other steps. Obama has already moved to ease deportations for some of those children, but not their parents.
In Tacoma, an estimated 750 inmates at the Northwest Detention Center began a hunger strike a week ago. Among them was Martin Peralta, an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the United States when he was seven. His wife Ashten has been in contact during the strike.
"He'll do whatever he can to be with his children even if that means sitting months and months inside our jails, just to have a chance to be let out and see his kids," she said.
Peralta had been on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2009 after a DUI conviction. A more recent conviction for reckless driving put his living status in jeopardy, said Ashten.
"He understands that there's laws in place but he has high hopes that something will change to help him," she said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who represents a heavily Latino district in Illinois and has criticized Obama for doing too little, said after the Oval Office meeting that he will present options to Johnson next week, and then the secretary will meet with the entire Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss those and other options.
"It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the president," said Gutierrez, one of three Democrats who met with Obama on Thursday. "The president clearly expressed the heartbreak he feels because of the devastating effect that deportations have on families."
Obama was also planning to meet Friday with organizations working to pass bipartisan immigration legislation, the White House said.
The move to consider changing how the government enforces deportations comes as immigration groups are growing increasingly impatient with Obama, despite his efforts to secure legislation that would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
While Congress delays action, Obama has stringently enforced laws he acknowledges must be updated, advocates argue. Under Obama's leadership, almost two million people have been removed from the U.S.
"For us, this president has been the deporter in chief," said Janet Murguia, who heads the National Council of La Raza, in a recent speech.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last June with strong bipartisan support that would create a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, tighten border security and establish new visa and enforcement programs. The measure has stalled in the House despite calls for lawmakers to act from Republican Party leaders, business groups, religious organizations and labor.
Joining Obama and Gutierrez for Thursday's meeting were Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California.