Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith’s attempt to strip the Obama administration of its immigration enforcement powers has drawn a harsh rebuke from Texas Democrats in the U.S. House, who say the proposal “is an attack on [the president’s] integrity that should not pass unnoticed or unopposed.”
Smith, R-San Antonio, this month introduced the Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation (HALT) Act, which would prevent the administration from, among other things, canceling the removal of illegal immigrants, granting protective status to any immigrant and granting parole or issuing deferred action (except in narrow circumstances). It is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
The legislation was filed as a direct response to a directive issued by Customs and Immigration Enforcement Director John Morton, who advised agency offices throughout the country last month to use prosecutorial discretion when deciding which immigrants to refer for deportation proceedings. Morton said the discretion would allow the agency to concentrate its limited resources on finding and deporting dangerous criminal immigrants that pose the greatest risk to the country.
Smith said the president “ignored the will of Congress and the American people” by using his authority to let illegal immigrants stay in the country.
Today in Washington, a coalition led by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., discussed a letter sent to the White House in response to the HALT Act. Gutierrez was joined by U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso.
“Tying your hands and that of our law enforcement and border security authorities in order to score political points is a new low. It brings new meaning to the term ‘playing politics,’ but in this case has severe consequences for national security and community safety,” the letter states. It is also signed by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Al Green, D-Houston; Gene Green, D-Houston; Charlie Gonzalez; D-San Antonio; and Ruben Hinojosa, D-Edinburg.
Smith’s allegations comes despite the fact that the Obama administration is on pace to deport or prosecute more immigrants in three years than President George W. Bush did in eight. Department of Justice data reflects that prosecutions for illegal entry since Obama took office are forecast to be about 132,400 by the end of the year, surpassing the Bush administration’s eight-year total of 122,385. Prosecutions for illegal reentry have averaged about 34,350 annually under Obama, compared to Bush’s annual average of 14,000.
The fact was not lost on Gutierrez, who has previously rebuked Obama for failing to do more to push a comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes the DREAM act.
“The Chairman also forgets that President Obama deports more people -- about 1,100 per day -- than the last President or any President in modern history. He conveniently forgets that the Obama Administration told Congress they are granting deferred action and other delays in deportation less than the previous Administration,” he said to colleagues today, according to a statement. “He also forgets that we are seeing historically low levels of illegal immigration; that communities along the U.S. Mexico border are the most crime-free communities in our nation; and that immigration from Mexico is the lowest it has been in six decades."
But Smith fired back with his own statistics, which he said proved the HALT Act was necessary.
“The Government Accountability Office has found that less than 44% of the border is under the operational control of the Border Patrol. And of that amount, only 15% is under full control,” he said in an email. “Drug-related violence continues to escalate in Mexico and it has spilled over into the U.S.”
Smith also said the Obama administration has contributed to the country’s “unemployment crisis.”
“While 24 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, seven million individuals work illegally in the U.S. Worksite enforcement activities have plummeted by 70% under the Administration,” he said. “There have been fewer arrests of illegal workers, fewer criminal arrests, fewer indictments and fewer convictions.”
The Morton directive specifically asks prosecutors to consider a number of factors, including the person’s education and whether they have graduated high school or attending college, if the illegal immigrant is the child or spouse of a U.S. citizen, if a relative has served in the military or if the immigrant is an ill person’s primary caretaker. Conditions in the person’s home country, the circumstances upon his or her arrival in to the country and whether the person came here as a young child may also be taken in to account, according to the memo.
On Tuesday a coalition of attorneys and former government officials, including two former general counsels to the agency formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Bo Cooper and Paul Virtue, said Morton’s memo falls in line with government policies.
“We believe that the analysis of the law and the guidance provided therein lie squarely within the basic authorities available to the executive branch,” the group concluded.
Gutierrez said he has the support of at least 75 members of the U.S. House, about half of what would be needed to sustain a veto if the HALT Act made it that far.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.