The broad coalition behind comprehensive immigration reform embraces activists, businesses, religious leaders, lawmakers and President Barack Obama. Yet it is unable to get a majority of House Republicans to pass any legislation.
Still, the weight of the movement is pressuring the president, who called on Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review the administration’s enforcement policies for “humane” solutions within the scope of existing law.
This move by the president, who in the past deemed himself powerless to act alone to suspend deportations, has won him praise among supporters of the overhaul. But critics of Obama’s directive fear a hollowing-out of immigration laws should proponents get their way on deportations.
Obama told Hispanic lawmakers in a meeting two weeks ago he was ordering the policy review out of a “deep concern ... for the pain these families face.”
Johnson is already making the rounds to lawmakers to learn their views ahead of a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus next month. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., met with Johnson on Tuesday and other advocates will do the same in the coming weeks “to discuss strategies to dial back the deportation of non-criminals and relieve, as much as possible within existing law, the family separation and pain that increasing deportations have caused in recent years,” Gutierrez said.
That’s precisely the problem for Ira Mehlman, media director at the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform, who said, “there is almost nothing to dial back.”
“The administration has all but halted the deportation of non-criminals,” Mehlman said.
Obama’s record of deportations, the most of any administration, is about to hit 2 million. Some 400,000 people are deported each year, according to data from the Pew Research Center. These numbers have earned Obama the title of “deporter-in-chief” among immigrant groups.
But the statistics are rather “deceptive” -- something the president himself has admitted -- since more than half of the people counted as deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were apprehended at the border. Those numbers wouldn’t have been counted by past administrations, Johnson confirmed to lawmakers two weeks ago. According to ICE data, only 133,551 of the 368,644 removals in fiscal 2013 were immigrants caught inside the U.S. Moreover, 82 percent of the immigrants removed from within the U.S. were previously convicted of crimes. The administration has said its focus is to deport criminals and those who pose a security threat.
“Nearly all of those were people who met the administration’s own priority criteria,” Mehlman said. He criticizes advocates on the other side like Gutierrez for blaming the impact of deportation on families on the execution of the law instead of those who violate it.
“In every other area of law enforcement, we hold the people who broke the law responsible for any adverse consequences on family members,” Mehlman said. “Moreover, people who are deported have the option of taking spouses and children with them.”
“Gutierrez and amnesty advocates seem to believe that the only justification for being removed from this country is having been convicted of a serious crime,” he added. “That is simply not true. Under the law, the penalty for being in the country illegally is deportation; otherwise our immigration laws are rendered meaningless.”
That families are being broken apart and that some people who could benefit from immigration reform get swept up in the dragnet is an issue for advocates and lawmakers. They prefer a permanent solution to the immigration reform debate, but until then, their hope is to have better strategies for prosecutorial discretion and administrative relief.
“I think it is sincere and a step in the right direction,” Gutierrez has said of the dialogue with Johnson and what he calls an “openness” on the part of the administration.
“We not only have to stop the needless destruction of families but need to heal families that have been caught up in the almost 2 million deportations we have seen in recent years,” he added. “The Obama administration and the secretary are taking the necessary steps to prepare for the worst, and the worst is that the Republicans in the House squander the national momentum and popular call for immigration reform and go back to the default Republican position of doing nothing or doing things to make the current situation worse. The clock is ticking on the GOP, and they need to give the country a vote on immigration reform and let the majority rule.”