His administration’s solution — scaling back deportations of illegal immigrants who appear to pose little criminal threat — could pay huge political dividends for the president with a key voting bloc in the 2012 election.
It also could backfire.
Immigration advocates say the new policy, which Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended last week, has stoked huge expectations in immigrant communities that deportations of mostly law-abiding illegal immigrants will end immediately. Those hopes could turn to disappointment if the process bogs down in bureaucracy and inconsistency.
Critics say the policy smacks of presidential politics and will waste federal money by suspending deportation cases that already are completed. They also argue there’s no way to predict who poses a threat to public safety, so some individuals allowed to stay in the U.S. could go on to commit serious crimes.
They hint at dire outcomes, reminiscent, perhaps, of the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, then the Democratic nominee, was blamed for the state’s weekend furlough program that made it possible for a convicted murderer to commit rape when he didn’t return to prison after his furlough.
“What happens when aliens in these removal proceedings, their cases are dropped and they then go on to commit very serious crimes or kill someone in a traffic accident?” said Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who has advised legislators in states seeking to toughen treatment of illegal immigrants. “These will have been avoidable deaths, and the Obama administration will have, for political reasons, put Americans in danger.”
Kobach said the policy inevitably will overlook potential threats. “Bureaucrats are going to define who will be a real danger,” he said. “Five of the 9/11 hijackers became unlawfully present in the United States, and none of those five had committed any crimes in the United States. But they went on to conduct a terror attack against the United States.”
At a House hearing last Tuesday, Republicans blasted the administration’s move as “administrative amnesty” and an end run around Congress.
Jan Ting, a Justice Department immigration official under President George H.W. Bush, told POLITICO the president’s initiative is “blatantly political. … He’s trying to ensure the turnout of Latino voters.”
In August, under heavy pressure from Latino supporters frustrated with Obama’s unfulfilled promises to revamp immigration law, the administration announced plans to review about 300,000 pending deportation cases and suspend or dismiss those deemed “low priority.”
Napolitano said the review would ensure that any future deportations “constitute our highest priorities” and her staff would refocus limited resources on “removal of aliens who pose a threat to public safety.” Her agency late last month underscored this new focus by arresting nearly 3,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records.
Shortly after the review was announced, she acknowledged that halting some deportations could spark political blowback. But she noted that Congress provides only enough money to deport about 400,000 people each year, and there are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The new policy, she said, is less risky than the one she inherited.
“I think the risk is greater if we don’t have the ability or facilities to even pick up those who’ve committed crimes and move them into deportation proceedings,” Napolitano said in response to a question from POLITICO. “You had illegal immigrants who committed crimes. Some of them very serious crimes — murder, rape, armed robbery. And they’d complete their sentences, and they’d be released back into the community as if nothing had happened. There was no way to systemically put a flag on them and say, ‘They’re not getting out. They’re going right … into removal.’”
At a recent online forum hosted by Latino websites, Obama stressed his support for overhauling immigration law and for narrower measures such as the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and now attend college or serve in the military. The administration has advocated both changes, but the legislation has stalled in Congress.
As an alternative, Obama told his audience, his administration is focusing its enforcement on serious criminals and not college students.
“We are doing everything we can administratively, but the fact of the matter is these are laws on the books that I have to enforce,” Obama said. “What we can do is to prioritize enforcement, since there are limited enforcement resources, and say we’re not going to go chasing after this young man or anybody else who’s been acting responsibly and would otherwise qualify for legal status if the DREAM Act passed.”
“Wherever we can provide some administrative certainty,” he told Spanish-language news outlets in August, “the better off we’re going to be.”
The announcement of the immigration review during the dog-days of summer drew only modest attention in the English-language press, but it was huge news in the Spanish-speaking community.
“This came out with a big splash,” said Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “If you watched Spanish-language press that day, the announcement wasn’t the first five or seven or nine minutes of [TV news], it was like the first 14 minutes.”
“All eyes are on this administration, especially in the Latino community,” Kelley added.
But she and other immigrant rights advocates noted that officials have yet to issue public guidelines for the review or explain how it will unfold.
“Agencies are rapidly deporting people, so it’s not something where you can kind of sit back and take your time,” she said. “Literally, people’s lives are at stake.”
She noted that Obama has deported 1 million people since he took office — more than President George W. Bush did in eight years.
“It’s as much to speed up the deportation of bad guys as it is to slow down the deportation of the best and brightest,” Kelley said. “There will always be people who point to a tragedy and want to play Monday morning quarterback and say, ‘If you hadn’t had that policy in place we would have known that jaywalker would become a murderer.’ It is kind of stretching.”
At the House hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Obama’s statements and the administration’s offer of work permits for those whose deportation is suspended amount to an invitation for illegal immigrants to enter or remain in the country.
“To say you can stay in the country and apply for work permits … actually goes around the will of the Congress,” McCaul said.
Republicans also noted that one potential beneficiary of Obama’s policy is his half-uncle, Obama Onyango. He reportedly was ordered deported to Kenya in 1992 but never left. After he was arrested in Massachusetts in August on drunk-driving charges, immigration authorities put him “under supervision” but did not detain him when he was released by a state court.
“If our immigration process is not robust enough to successfully deport someone with a 19-year-old deportation order, why should Americans have any confidence that we can deport terrorists and criminals that pose a threat to public safety?” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) asked.
The administration’s drive to alter its immigration policy seemed to gather new urgency in July, when The Associated Press reported that in the 2010 fiscal year the number of people deported after drunken driving convictions and other traffic offenses had nearly tripled that in the final fiscal year of the Bush administration. Deportations for drug-related offenses were up as well, by about 25%.
The statistics prompted outrage from Latino groups that said Obama had broken his promises to focus deportation efforts on hard-core criminals.
Obama recently insisted that the numbers reflect “a huge shift” toward deporting criminals “that began as soon as I came into office.” But he also called the figures “a little deceptive,” saying they include large numbers of illegal immigrants who were turned around within a day or two of crossing the border.
Eager to highlight its emphasis on deporting serious criminals, the Obama administration last month conducted its second “Operation Cross Check” — a nationwide roundup of “criminal aliens.”
“The results are impressive. In the space of seven days, we arrested 2,901 criminal offenders from 115 different countries in communities across the entire United States. Every single person we arrested had at least one or more convictions,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton told a news conference. “They are not the kind of people we want walking our streets.”
But only about 1,600 of those arrested in the sweep were felons, meaning the other roughly 1,300 had more minor convictions.
In addition, Morton said in response to questions that, nearly six weeks after DHS announced its plans to examine the 300,000 pending deportation cases, that review has not started.
“We are still working as a department to develop the process and guidelines for the review,” he said.
Immigrant rights advocates say it needs to begin — quickly.
“I want to give DHS and the administration a lot of credit for taking this step,” said Ali Noorani of the American Immigration Forum. “Now they’ve got to make the pudding.”
Democrats who track the Latino vote say Obama’s policy will boost his standing with that community.
“The affected communities are looking for clear signals about who’s going to stand with them and who’s going to stand against them, and on this issue … with this action and others in the past, the president is making that clear,” said Rick Palacio, head of the Colorado Democratic Party.
But he, too, noted some confusion about Obama’s new policy.
“Some immigration officers in enforcement in some parts of the state appear not to have gotten the word that there’s a new policy,” Palacio said. “You have people out there wondering whether it’s safe for them to come forward.”