By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb
Amid fierce debate over the Obama administration’s record on the deportation of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. without serious criminal records, insiders confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday that the White House is seriously considering unilateral action to reduce deportations. Preliminary reports suggest that a review of the policy by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson may result in executive action curbing deportations. Rumors of White House movement on the issue surfaced last week, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus presented Johnson with a memo outlining their demands. Most notably, they recommended an expansion of the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the elimination of “Secure Communities,” a program initiated during the Bush era that mandates that local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws and which has led to reported abuses.
The increased pressure on the president to further limit forced removals comes at a moment when deportations are on the decline and interior enforcement is at a five-year low. New statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security (via FOIA requests from The New York Times) and the Department of Justice provide the most comprehensive view to date of an enforcement policy fraught with political miscalculations. DOJ reports, for example, a 43 percent drop in the number of new deportation cases filed in federal immigration courts in the last five years. In hopes of gaining credibility and leverage for Democrats in a potential immigration deal, the administration in 2011 reallocated massive enforcement resources to the U.S.-Mexico border. The plan was to ease interior enforcement that disrupted established families and communities – and ran up deportation numbers in the past – while deporting higher numbers of recent border crossers, who under previous administrations would have been sent home without formal charges. In the interior, workplace raids all but disappeared, but state and local police, under the Secure Communities program, continued to identify “high-priority offenders.”
The Obama administration’s five-year attempt to placate Republican lawmakers through record-setting deportations has backfired politically, and the collateral damage is high, with nearly 2 million deportations to date and an outraged electoral base. Though current and former administration officials argue that concerns over public safety and border security have guided immigration enforcement since day one, the evidence suggests that political expedience has driven Obama’s deportation policy and – with midterm elections just around the corner and maneuvering toward the 2016 presidential elections already underway – is likely to continue to do so. Obama’s eagerness to impress Republicans with his toughness, without any guarantee the maneuver would work, has alienated Hispanic and Asian communities who feel betrayed and whose turnout at the polls is crucial for a Democratic victory. The leaks of executive action indicate a White House focused on damage control with those important constituencies, while essentially signaling the definitive end of any chance of bipartisan Congressional immigration reform. Despite some handwringing among American conservatives that the Republicans’ position will lock out Hispanic voters for years to come, most of the party’s leaders appear to give priority to their nativist base. Obama ultimately may be calculating that, with chances of passage of immigration nil anyway, his energy is best spent on rebuilding ties with constituents whose communities have been torn apart by policies pursued during his first five years in office.