Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.
San Diego (CNN) -- When asked over the years if he can use executive power to stop deporting illegal immigrants, President Barack Obama has responded: Yes, we can! Other times, the answer was: No we can't!
This week, at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco, Obama was heckled by an audience member who was later identified as Ju Hong, an undocumented student from South Korea who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in political science. When Hong pleaded with Obama to put the brakes on deportations and stop separating families, Obama responded:
"Now, what you need to know, when I'm speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community, is that if, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition."
But, on October 26, 2011, at the University of Colorado-Denver, Obama said this when talking to students about using an executive order to reduce student loan debt.
"We're not going to wait for Congress. I'm going to act with or without Congress. Where they won't act, I will, through a series of executive orders. ... We're going to look every day to see what we can do without Congress."
And on October 25, 2010, on the Spanish-language radio show, "Piolin por la Manana" -- when host Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo asked him why he hadn't moved faster on immigration reform, Obama responded:
"I am president, I am not a king. I can't do these things just by myself. We have a system of government that requires the Congress to work with the executive branch to make it happen."
Yet, two years later, while facing re-election and eager to reignite support among Latinos, Obama managed to get something done without Congress' approval.
On June 15, 2012, he announced that his administration was offering Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to allow undocumented young people to temporarily avoid deportation and apply for a two-year work permit. Speaking from the Rose Garden, Obama said:
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans. ... In the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, what we've tried to do is focus our immigration enforcement resources in the right places. ... Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people."
Confused? Join the club.
Obama's immigration schtick is simple. He blames Republicans for the fact that we don't have immigration reform. H3 covers up for Democrats in Congress who have had a poor record on immigration. He insists that his administration is not deporting Dreamers or anyone else who isn't a hard-core criminal. And -- as he did this week -- he claims that his hands are tied because he needs Congress as a dance partner.
So if a president takes action without Congress, he violates the law? But this isn't true. There's such a thing as the executive order.
Obama has issued 164 executive orders on such things as climate change and student debt. It's a well-worn presidential tool -- George W. Bush issued 287; Bill Clinton issued 308.
In his most recent use of executive power, Obama is attempting to tinker with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act so that Americans can keep their health plans a while longer.
The point: When it comes to using the power of the presidency for causes he really cares about, Obama is no shrinking violet. So he must not care about immigration.
The audience in San Francisco wasn't buying it. Hong shouted at the president that he had "the power to stop deportations for all" because there are "thousands of families separated every single day."
The actual figure is about 1,100 deportations every day if apprehensions and deportations keep pace with the rate in previous years -- roughly 400,000 per year, totaling a record of nearly 2 million since Obama took office.
Obama pushed back against Hong, insisting that he didn't have the power to stop deporting people or dividing families. "That's why we're here," he said.
Other people in the crowd sided with Hong and began to shout: "Stop deportations! Yes, we can!"
On the defensive, Obama unleashed the left's favorite weapon: condescension.
"So the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws," he said. "What I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic process to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won't be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done."
You know what is an easy way out, Mr. President? Not being constrained by core principles because you change your position whenever you need to get out of a scrape.
After the exchange, Hong claimed that he hadn't planned to challenge the President of the United States, but that he couldn't take it anymore.
"This is very urgent," he told reporters. "This is the only venue where I could speak out, and I'm representing the voices of other undocumented students who are actually in the detention center right now and who cannot be here."
Bravo. This young man is a hero for bravely speaking truth to power. Way to represent.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.