A task force created to help overhaul a controversial deportation program instead witnessed five of its 19 members resign last week, another sign the Obama administration’s immigration policy remains politically problematic for him at a time when courting Latinos is crucial to his re-election.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Task Force on Secure Communities released its report evaluating the interagency operation that determines if immigrants arrested by local police are deportable under federal immigration laws. The task force recommended that the federal government re-evaluate its mission to focus deportation efforts on criminal aliens, not illegal immigrants arrested for minor traffic violations or noncriminal misdemeanors.
Homeland Security created the task force in June in response to widespread criticism of the Secure Communities program. Launched in 2008, the Secure Communities program was touted as a way to ferret out and deport criminal aliens here in the U.S. legally and illegally.
Immigrant and civil rights’ groups have accused the government of misleading the public about the program’s intent and say it has been used far more broadly to deport immigrants. Critics of Secure Communities say it has helped the Obama administration ramp up the number of deportations and is part of the reason why the government is currently on pace to prosecute more illegal immigrants in three years for illegal entry or illegal reentry than President George W. Bush did in his eight-year term.
At the same time it created the task force in June, DHS issued a directive urging Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors to use “prosecutorial discretion” when deciding whom to place in deportation proceedings. Immigrants’ rights groups were unimpressed, however, and said the actions amounted to little more than an attempt at political cover before an election year. Instead, they argue, Secure Communities should be eliminated altogether.
The National Day Labor Organizing Network was among the first to cheer the task force’s splintering last week, calling former Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas a hero for abandoning the effort and resigning. Venegas and the four other task force members resigned rather than sign off on the recommendations in the report.
“Arturo Venegas is setting the example and leading the way for task force members to match the courage of those who stood up at task force hearings calling for an end of the program,” said Sarahi Uribe of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “His resignation makes him a hero in the immigrant community."
The network's statement is indicative of the discomfort a portion of the Latino community has expressed in the president's immigration policies in a period of record deportations and a weak economy, which the Pew Research Center has found affects Latinos more directly than whites or blacks.
“He ran on a platform that would push immigration reform and be sympathetic to Latinos. That has changed, unfortunately,” said Fernando Garcia, the executive director for El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights and a founding member of the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance. “When he had the majority in Congress, why didn’t he push [reform]? It was very important for the Latino community to be sure he was at least pushing it. The perception was that he didn’t.”
In a recent survey commissioned by a GOP polling group, Resurgent Republic, Obama’s appeal among Hispanics is waning in three key states he won in 2008: Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the three states combined will have more than 2.2 million projected Latino voters in 2012.
Despite the mounting displeasure within some circles, Obama is maintaining his appeal among those who believe the president is at least trying to implement reform but cannot act alone.
“President Obama has done everything he can to bypass the obstructionist Congress,” said Rebecca Acuña, the Texas Democratic Party’s deputy political director for base outreach, in a statement. “The President’s new policies on deportation are some of the most positive, sweeping changes we’ve seen in immigration policy in decades, and the most the president can do without congressional approval. Latinos won’t punish the president for the refusal of Republicans to enact comprehensive immigration reform. They’ll punish Republican xenophobes and an obstructionist Congress.”
The president's Republican critics have accused him of pursuing "backdoor amnesty" by urging ICE prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in whom they pursue. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, has introduced legislation that would blunt the administration's authority to carry out immigration policy.
In a recent letter urging DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to provide details about the directives, Smith wrote: “The Obama administration again chooses to ignore immigration laws under the guise of prosecutorial discretion. Despite the administration’s claims that there is nothing new with respect to this policy, it represents a drastic and unprecedented shift. Ultimately, these memos may allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States in violation of existing law and regulations and compete with unemployed American and legal immigrant workers for scarce jobs."
Their harsh criticism of Obama highlights the conundrum the president finds himself in: He's attacked from both the left and the right, by Latino and liberal critics who are disillusioned by his actions as president and by conservatives who charge that he has abdicated his responsibility to secure the country's borders — even as he deports a record number of immigrants.
Beyond Texas’ borders an effort is being made by the Tequila Party, which bills itself as an alternative to the Tea Party, to educate Latinos on where the presidential candidates stand on immigration. A top priority for many Latinos is the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrants brought here as children and have since excelled in their studies and successfully completed some college or military service.
“We see President Obama making small steps in the right direction,” said Tequila Party founder DeeDee Blasé.
Blasé also founded Somos Republicans, which is dedicated to recruiting Latino voters to the GOP. Blasé says she has left the Republican Party and is now an independent, a reaction to what she said are misguided immigration policies adopted by extremists in the GOP.
She and other critics of the administration's immigration polices accuse ICE officials of ignoring the Homeland Security's directive to exercise greater discretion in deciding whom to prosecute.
“For ICE to not follow the presidential directive is a big problem," she said. "There is a miscommunication with the Obama administration [and ICE], and it hasn’t caught up [to the public]."
When asked to respond to the allegations that ICE was ignoring the president's directive, the agency stood firmly by its current actions.
"This administration is doing more than any previous administration to prioritize resources on criminal aliens who are threats to public safety, through smart policies and a focus on enforcing the law effectively," ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein said in an email. "More than half of those removed last year — upwards of 195,000 — were convicted criminals, a 70 percent increase in removal of criminal immigrants from the previous administration. The directive clearly states that the exercise of discretion is inappropriate in cases involving threats to public safety, national security and other agency priorities."
Blasé said she is currently looking for someone to take over Somos Republicans. In the meantime she says she is recruiting college students who are sympathetic to immigrants in order to achieve far-teaching reform.
“We want to marry the Anglo sympathizers to the DREAM Act kids,” she said. “In essence our college rally message will be to the tune of … ‘Vote for me because I can’t vote for myself.'”
David Leopold, the immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a policy adviser to the Tequila Party, said the public must be made aware that immigration reform extends beyond enforcement only.
“All the questions are really about fences and boots on the ground and that type of thing,” he said. “That’s not the problem. That is a terrible symptom of the problem, but the problem is we have a terribly dysfunctional immigration system. The bottom line is immigration economically is good for the country.”
Still, others see Obama’s efforts through a more pragmatic lens. He may be able to shore up or regain support from disillusioned Latinos with action before the election, but he’ll still have to answer to those who ask what took the administration so long.
“What really dictates how big of an influence that will have is … what happens between now and next year. There is still a fair amount of time,” said Evan Bacalao, NALEO’s senior director of civic engagement. “The political realities are what they are, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there was something that was promised that didn’t happen.”
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