As tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters prepare to demonstrate in Washington on Sunday in favor of an immigration overhaul, the Obama administration is finding its relationship with this largely Latino community complicated by its mixed and misunderstood record on immigration enforcement.
Compared with the Bush administration, Obama officials have substantially cut back on job-site roundups of illegal workers in favor of less controversial measures, such as auditing employers’ books and expanding programs that target unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes. The number of workers arrested for being in the country illegally — an administrative violation of immigration law — through work-site raids dropped nearly 70 percent, from 5,184 to 1,644 in the 2009 fiscal year, prompting an outcry from some congressional Republicans.
“At best, it appears as though immigration enforcement is being shelved and the administration is attempting to enact some sort of selective amnesty under the cover of prioritization,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) at a House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee hearing Thursday. “We cannot allow a preoccupation with criminal aliens to obscure other critical ICE missions. . . . At a time of painfully high unemployment, how can we allow illegal immigrants to take jobs away from Americans who need them?”
Yet Obama officials have not halted work-site roundups altogether, and their other enforcement programs continue to sweep up tens of thousands of non-criminal illegal immigrants. This has fueled a growing sense of betrayal among many Latinos who voted for the president.
Criticism from both sides
John T. Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security in charge of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), acknowledged that Latino disillusionment can be as pronounced as conservatives’ unhappiness. “I can get criticized on the same issue from both sides on the same day,” he said.
Among the advocates, much of the frustration stems from the stalled effort to legalize unauthorized immigrants as well as gnawing doubts about the president’s commitment to push it through Congress this year. But perhaps no aspect of the immigration issue arouses more passion than the administration’s enforcement record, because it is the one area over which the president has full control. “When Obama said [during the campaign] it’s un-American to tear a mother from her child, we believed him,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which has brought several hundred protesters to Washington. “We never imagined that a year later, we’d be denouncing his administration for surpassing the Bush administration on enforcement.”
In recent months, a drumbeat of reports about small-scale work-site raids by ICE, including an operation targeting two Maryland restaurants last week in which agents arrested 29 foreigners, has also created an exaggerated impression of the extent to which such actions still take place.
A recent government report that grossly overstated the rate of deportations didn’t help matters, incorrectly asserting that deportations were up 47 percent in Obama’s first year. This month, immigrant advocates seized on that statistic at a Washington news conference. But as ICE officials clarified that day, deportations have increased by 5 percent, reaching 387,790 removals in fiscal year 2009. The increase in removals is due to a 19 percent rise in deportation of criminal immigrants, but two-thirds of those removed were still non-criminals, and the total reached a record high.
Morton said the statistics reflect ICE’s priorities: to protect against national security threats, remove the most dangerous criminal offenders, and target unscrupulous employers first, but without ignoring the law against illegal immigrant workers.