Very soon, on the issue of immigration reform, the Obama administration will have to fish or cut bait.
Back in October, before the smoke cleared from the 2010 mid-term elections, I wrote an article entitled “Beyond Lame Politics: Why The DREAM Act Will Pass.” I asserted, as soon as the president geared up his re-election campaign, he would realize the need to reinvigorate promises made to immigrant communities which supported his party two years ago.
Debate over immigration reform, I noted, would begin in early 2011 and continue into 2012, causing many Democratic Party representatives to squirm as they started to feel increased pressure to support some form of pro-immigrant legislation.
I cautioned against placing too heavy a bet on the extent of reform, if any, which might occur.
Unfortunately, if recent events are any indicator of what’s to come, political events are unfolding almost according to my script.
I’m not happy about being on point.
I was hoping the president would do better.
A New Immigration Agenda?
Last week, most news outlets reported the administration took its biggest step yet in the direction of a compassionate immigration policy.
In a carefully worded statement, the White House announced it had worked out a strategy to focus on individuals who have been convicted or crimes or pose a security risk, not those who are low priority cases like DREAM Act students and military veterans. This policy shift, however, pertained only to immigrants facing deportation charges at immigration court.
In actuality, the president’s July 18, 2011 announcement did not deviate from his earlier statements.
Still, some reformers jumped on the announcement, praising the part about setting-aside low-priority deportation cases as signifying a major policy change.
My view differs.
It’s too early to declare victory.
Unlike many immigrant advocates, I am not willing to accept a piecemeal approach to reform focused on just a few words without concomitant actions.
As a Riverside immigration lawyer, I cannot ignore events involving ICE and this administration over the past 1 1/2 years at face value.
The Obama Letter: A Statement Of Immigration Philosophy
On July 25, 2011, President Obama wrote to Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez:
“It is absolutely true that my Administration is vigorously enforcing the immigration laws. This is our responsibility, and our top priority in these efforts is the safety and security of the public. Consistent with this principle, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken multiple steps to establish and implement clear priorities and procedures for the removal of those who are here illegally.”
Noting “DHS’s highest priority for removal is those who have committed serious crimes or pose a national security threat,” Obama cited the following statistics:
- In FY 2008, 69% of removals were non-criminals, 31% were criminals
- In FY 2009, 65% of removals were non-criminals, 35% were criminals
- In FY 2010, 49% of removals were non-criminals, 51% were criminals
Of those removed with no criminal convictions, Obama stated, the vast majority were individuals previously removed from the U.S. or recent arrivals unlikely to be part of families being separated due to ICE enforcement efforts.
The president also wrote that DHS has the authority to make case-by-case decisions to grant temporary, limited relief to individuals in removal proceedings, but stressed it is inappropriate to use this authority in a categorical way to protect DREAM Act students or any other group, no matter how compelling their situation.
Secure Communities: Alive And Growing
Just a few nights before the president’s July 18th announcement, Los Angeles residents showed up at a public discussion of the Secure Communities program to voice their opposition.
Under the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, state and local law enforcement agencies are required to send fingerprints of all people arrested to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
According to ICE, the focus of S-Comm is the detention and deportation of Level I “high-threat” criminal immigrants.
The figures tell a different story.
The vast majority (79%) of the people deported due to S-Comm are non-criminals or were picked up for lower level offenses, such as traffic offenses or petty juvenile mischief.
In some areas, a recent study by the Center For Constitutional Rights shows the percentage of immigrants with no criminal convictions deported under the S-Comm program exceeds 60% of total deportees.
- Travis, TX (82%)
- St. Lucie, FL (79%)
- Yavapai, AZ (74%)
- Tarrant, TX (73%)
- Broward, FL (71%)
- Suffolk, MA (68%)
- Hillsborough, FL (66%)
- Miami-Dade, FL (66%)
- Pima, AZ (65%)
- Wake, NC (64%)
- Collin, TX (63%)
- San Diego, CA (63%)
The study undermines Obama’s claims about targeted deportations.
Moreover, ICE plans to extend S-Comm to every jurisdiction in the country by 2013.
If carried out, this can only mean one thing. Widespread apprehensions of immigrants with minor or no convictions will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Premature Immigration Applause
On the same day as the Obama announcement, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin compelled the release of hundreds of documents related to the government’s detention and deportation policies and criticized the administration’s pattern of deceit.
“There is ample evidence,” stated Judge Scheindlin, “that ICE and DHS have gone out of their way to mislead the public about Secure Communities.”
She added, “In particular, these agencies have failed to acknowledge a shift in policy when it is patently obvious – from public documents and statements – that there has been one.”
She wasn’t referring to a policy shift in favor of compassion for non-criminal immigrants.
In other words, the new Obama plan is the same as the old one.
Only temporary, limited relief to individuals in removal proceedings was announced last week. Unknown to most of the public, this already existed. Deportation defense attorneys have long known about how to seek termination of proceedings when their clients had a clear path to permanent residence and green cards.
Moreover, even if all 300,000 immigrants currently facing deportation charges were spared under the Obama plan, Roberto Lovato, Founder of Presente.org, astutely notes that’s less than a 3% solution.
The real key to meaningful immigration change is ICE.
As long as ICE activities are left unchecked, the administration’s announcement about suspending deportations remains political smoke, not legal substance.
Until a firm plan is in place to control the activities of ICE officers, immigration reform is a moot issue. As noted in “The Morton Memorandum: More Empty Talk Or The Real Deal This Time?”, you can’t transform the culture of an organization like ICE, trained to see the world as “us versus them”, with one memo.
“Too many advocates were too quick to applaud” the Obama announcement, explains Carolina Martin Ramos, an immigration attorney at the New Mexico Public Defender’s Office.
“Folks need to get back to organizing and doing whatever they were doing before . . . the announcement.”
“I believe the administration responded to protests over secured communities and the reports from AILA and other national groups demanding an end to Sec Comm,”and the announcement “functioned to take the wind out of those reports.”
Reformers should heed Ramos’ advice.
By specifically referencing college students, the administration hopes to appease DREAM Act activists, perhaps the largest and best-organized immigration reform advocacy group.
With elections getting closer every day, the president knows he will soon have to take a firm stance on the immigration debate.
At that point, he will be forced to choose whether he wants to side with his supporters who oppose immigration reform or immigrant reformers who helped him win the White House in his first campaign.
That is, unless he can pacify a large bloc of immigration advocates in advance.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get back to work.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics