Monday, September 30, 2013

Obama on undocumented immigration: can't or won't?

Image: Latino protesters against President Obama's immigration policy..."LATINOS ? OBAMA" (source)

Recently, President Obama caused a stir by insisting that he legally doesn't have the power to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't weigh in on whether or not that's actually true. Rather, it's important to note that the weight of the evidence argues persuasively that Obama has no interest in helping undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether or not he actually can.

This is building off a previous post I wrote about how President Obama doesn't care about the plight of illegal immigrants. It's textbook liberal Democrat myth. To summarize that post:
  • Advocating for immigration reform does not make you a liberal. President Reagan signed into law that eventually gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. John McCain proposed an immigration reform bill that would have provided amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 2008, shortly before winning the Republican nomination to run for President. In 2007, President George W. Bush tried (and failed) to push another bill that would have granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Senator Obama helped to kill that bill.
  • When, as President, Obama released an immigration reform bill in early 2013, he did so only grudgingly. United States law requires green card holders to wait 5 years before becoming a citizen; the amnesty bill Reagan signed into law required undocumented immigrants to wait an additional 18 months. Obama's plan required undocumented immigrants to wait an additional eight years! Obviously, Obama has to expect his proposal to be the left-most point of the debate; any compromise with Republicans will thus be further to the right than his original proposal. Obama is a smart man; he knows this to be true. That is precisely what he wants to happen. Either Obama and his entire team of advisors are so stupid that they can't game out politics further than an armchair blogger--or he wants a very right-wing immigration reform plan. Remember, he's already in his second term and doesn't need to worry about reelection.
  • Others have pointed out that Obama claimed throughout his first term that he could not legally order ICE to defer deportation action against undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents as children (the so-called "DREAMers"). Then, while running for reelection in 2012, he suddenly ordered ICE to do exactly that, with no legal challenges or consequences whatsoever. As I pointed out, there is no doubt that he did so to help win reelection.
  • Even Republicans have a modicum of understanding for the situation of people whose parents brought them across the border as young children--and who thus know no other country as "home." It's very difficult to attack a decision to protect this small fraction of undocumented immigrants. His decision to create a loophole for just DREAMers took very little courage.
Read the full post for more details.

All right then, let's take a look at what immigration enforcement has looked like under the Obama administration. Reminder: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security; obviously, Obama appoints the head of DHS and is thus directly responsible for the general direction of ICE efforts, even if he isn't responsible for specific initiatives. Under Obama's leadership, ICE will have deported 2 million people by 2014--in just six years, Obama will have deported more people than were deported from the years 1892 and 1996--combined. In the eight years he was president, George W. Bush deported 2 million undocumented immigrants; Obama will have managed to deport that number of undocumented immigrants in just five years(!). And, the US spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement categories combined, and illegal border re-entry is the most prosecuted federal crime. This isn't a symptom of increased undocumented immigration; undocumented immigration has been on a steady decline since 2008, shortly before Obama was inaugurated. It doesn't have to be this way.

It's worth pausing to note that Congress controls budgeting, and Obama doesn't necessarily have a say in all of this. Nevertheless, if this isn't the outcome Obama wanted, why did he appoint an immigration enforcement hawk to head up DHS? Does anyone really think Obama was surprised when he learned ICE was setting deportation quotas? Indeed, Obama controls Department of Justice priorities; if he can order federal prosecutors to disobey (an extremely unjust) federal law in order to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison, he can at least order federal prosecutors to shift resources away from prosecuting undocumented immigration. Clearly, Obama has no qualms about bending the rules to prevent a perceived injustice; it's just that he doesn't see immigration law as being as unjust as mandatory minimums (except, as outlined in my previous post, when it's electorally necessary). In sum, Obama isn't an immigration dictator, but he isn't powerless, either.

Another key hypocrisy of Obama's immigration policy is his stance on deporting criminals. He certainly talks a great game:
What I’ve also said is if we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done.
But even with incomplete data, this is clearly a lie. Just 14% of those deported January-March 2012 had criminal records, and only 4% were potentially dangerous--classified as "aggravated felons." An "aggravated felon" could be a murderer or rapist, but could also have gotten pinched for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The classification "aggravated felon" is intentionally vague so that we are led to believe that all "aggravated felons" are dangerous--why else would murderers and pot smokers get grouped together? Some of that 4% were probably dangerous, but many were not.

More data argues against Obama's insistence that he is only deporting criminals. In 2011, of the fraction of people deported who were "criminals," 23% were guilty of traffic violations, and 20% were guilty of "immigration crimes" (more recent data are unavailable). Notice how these categories are deliberately misleading. Does an immigration crime mean an illegal border crossing or sex trafficking of minors? Does a traffic violation entail a seventh DUI or speeding 5 mph over the speed limit? There is no way of knowing, because it is not politically expedient for you to know. Does a "drug crime" mean crack dealing or possession of a small amount of marijuana? If the latter, it would be difficult to find a better example of a punishment far exceeding the crime. Indeed, it's safe to say that a significant fraction of the "criminals" deported for traffic violations were guilty of nothing more than driving to work--ICE was caught dragnetting undocumented immigrants at traffic safety checkpoints. And, the 20% of "criminals" deported for "immigration crimes" is an exquisite example of the circular logic of political expediency--an undocumented immigrant is by definition breaking immigration law. In other words, Obama promises not to deport criminals, yet, under ICE guidelines, it's impossible not to be a criminal if you are an undocumented immigrant. How convenient.

Finally--though it makes for a great talking point--the "policy" of only deporting criminals is not a departure from the policies of President George W. Bush. In all actuality, Bush deported a higher proportion of criminals than Obama has. In 2008--when George W. Bush was still president--5.2% of people deported were aggravated felons and 17.5% had a criminal record. In 2012, under Obama, just 3.6% were aggravated felons and only 14% had a criminal record. Obama's commitment to only deporting criminals is nothing more than flowery lipservice, since Bush made no promise to only deport criminals, yet deported a higher proportion of criminals than Obama. Indeed,
There has been an increase in the number of deportees who have family ties in the United States. Between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2012, nearly a quarter of all deportations—or, 204,810 deportations—involved parents with U.S. citizen children. This is remarkable, as a previous report found that DHS deported about 100,000 people who had U.S. citizen children in the ten years spanning 1997 and 2006.
That's right--while promising to only deport criminals, Obama is actually deporting fewer criminals and far more parents of US citizen children than George W. Bush. If this is Obama's idea of helping undocumented immigrants, I'm greatly relieved to know that he hasn't promised to help out social workers.

In conclusion, Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than George W. Bush or any president, and is continuing to do so at a very high rate. His "commitment" to only deporting immigrants that are "dangerous" or "gang bangers" is a shallow lie. At best, it is a pretense to increase deportations. Again, Obama probably has little to do with the overall strategy of ICE. But--as discussed above--if he indeed has no direct control, he certainly has no qualms about scoring political points by trumpeting the "commitment" to only deporting criminals. And--if he actually wanted a more humane ICE--why did he appoint an immigration enforcement hawk as head of DHS?

Perhaps Obama is a warped "ends justify the means" kind of guy. Maybe he thinks he can get an amnesty bill passed only if he firmly establishes his chops as a tough enforcer of immigration law. But if that's the case, why was his immigration reform proposal so far to the right of the amnesty bill President Reagan signed into law? Don't hold your breath waiting for Obama to change course once House Republicans formally kill the Senate's disgraceful $46 billion corporate welfare plan masquerading as an immigration reform bill.

Or, perhaps Obama feared for his right flank during reelection; if so, why has enforcement not abated now that he is safely reelected? And why has he continued to send increased resources to the border in his second term? He is under no obligation to do so; this is his choice.

I'm not an immigration lawyer. I can't evaluate whether Obama's claims are true--I'll leave that up to others (it's worth recalling--yet again--that Obama said he didn't have the power to order deferred action for DREAMers, then did so shortly before the 2012 election when his reelection was uncertain). Regardless, it's worth remembering that--whether or not he can--Obama does not want to help undocumented immigrants, and will only do so when politically necessary.

As I said in my previous post about this issue, there is nothing inherently wrong about Obama's views. He's entitled to his opinion, and this is how politics is supposed to work. Simply put, you can't trust politicians to do the right thing, and DREAMer activists have been appropriately working to make immigration reform an issue that cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, don't forget that all that Hope and Change was only intended for certain people.

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