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Ahead of Election, GOP Assails Democrats on Immigration Policies

The GOP is tired of the perception that Hispanic voters are squarely in the Democrats' camp. Ahead of the November election, they're looking to capitalize on the Obama administration’s record number of deportations.

Dream Act supporters outside of the W hotel at President Obama's fundraiser on May 10, 2011.

A new ad in toss-up state Nevada warns Hispanic voters that a vote for President Obama is a vote for the “deporter-in-chief” — an incumbent who fell short on his campaign promise to enact immigration reform.

"Since he took office, President Obama has broken up hundreds of thousands of families through a policy of massive deportations,” Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said in a news release. “He has been hoodwinking the American people, deploring the Arizona and Georgia immigration laws as bad laws, while deporting more immigrants than any modern president.” 

The ad, paid for by the conservative nonprofit American Principles in Action, is part of a larger strategy by Republicans to challenge the perception that Democrats are friendlier toward immigrants than they are.

That argument hardly resonates on issues like the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented students and military veterans a path to legal status, and prosecutorial discretion, a policy that prioritizes federal resources on criminal aliens. Democrats champion both, while Republicans call them “amnesty for illegals.”

But immigration observers acknowledge that the two most recent Democratic presidents have passed or upheld the country’s strictest laws to curb illegal immigration, and that deportations have risen to record levels under Obama. And the GOP is quick to note that President Ronald Reagan’s administration enacted the country’s last major immigration reform, followed by a similar but unsuccessful effort by President George W. Bush.

Texas Republicans, despite having pushed for controversial bans on so-called sanctuary cities and on birthright citizenship, are trying to seize on the discontent over Obama’s immigration policies. They’ve adopted a platform calling for a national guest-worker program. But GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign promise to veto the DREAM Act, coupled with his support for state enforcement of immigration laws, is a likely hurdle for the party.

America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform group, said it is holding the president to task, but warns that the recent ad in Nevada is nothing more than an attempt to mask the GOP’s anti-immigrant agenda.

“We have been and will continue to be critical of President Obama for his immigration enforcement record,” said Frank Sharry, the group’s executive director. But he said Romney’s “goal is to drive millions of immigrants from the country” by embracing punitive state laws and electronic verification of employees’ legal status. “Meanwhile, Romney rejects immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and has pledged to veto the DREAM Act,” he said.

Think tanks and analysts challenge the assumption that Hispanics are a monolithic voting bloc that cares only about immigration. They argue that policy issues like education, health care and the economy are as important — if not more — to many Latino voters.

But in the lead up to the November election, discussion on the incumbent president’s immigration record may be unavoidable. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 12.2 million Hispanics will vote in the presidential election, up from 9.7 million in 2008.

David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that when people look at the record level of deportations under Obama — about 1.2 million so far — they should also look at the laws that gave his administration the green light: laws signed by President Bill Clinton.

“What Clinton did that stands out is that he signed off on the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which basically eviscerated many of the more humanitarian provisions of the law and split up a lot of families,” Leopold said.

Specifically, the 1996 law created what are known as the three- and 10-year bars — the amount of time applicants for legal status must remain outside of the U.S. before they apply for re-entry, depending on how long they were in the country illegally.

“If there was no three- and 10-year bar, I don’t think we’d have 12 million undocumented people in the United States right now,” Leopold said.

That law also took away a lot of due process, he added, by making deportations mandatory for certain offenses that previously were under the purview of an immigration judge. And it gave life to the controversial 287(g) program, which allows local and state law enforcement officers to perform immigration functions, provided they complete requisite training. The immigrants’ rights community has assailed the program and alleges it is used to stop and detain a large number of U.S. citizens or legal residents thought to be in the country illegally.

Current backlogs in immigration courts are at an all-time high: The average wait time for an alleged immigration violator to go before a judge is 526 days, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a data research and distribution organization at the University of Syracuse. TRAC estimates that as of the end of June, roughly 314,000 cases were awaiting a resolution nationally, a 5.6 percent increase over 2011. About 36,840 such cases are pending in Texas, the third highest in the country.

Leopold blames the 1996 laws, not Obama, for creating that backlog. While he concedes that the Obama administration’s deportation numbers are high, he said the president cannot unilaterally change statute.

“He can’t wave a magic wand and change the law, what he can do is set enforcement priorities,” he said. “He’s set the enforcement priorities going after the national security risks and not gifted students and veterans. But he can’t, for example, give these folks a pathway to citizenship.”

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