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New Deportation Policy Less than It Appears

Not "silent amnesty." Just politics as usual.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

August 27, 2011 - 12:00 am

In appearing to soften its immigration policy by agreeing to review hundreds of thousands of deportation cases in the pipeline, the Obama administration is either pulling off a big deal — or a big con.

Owing to experience and my own cynical nature, I’ll put my money on the latter.

Latino voters would be wise to do the same. After all, political observers insist, this is the demographic that this policy change is primarily aimed at. Latinos gave more than 66 percent of their votes to Barack Obama in 2008, but they are not likely to show him much love in 2012.

Three reasons for this: (1) Obama broke his promise to Latino groups to make immigration reform a top priority of his administration; (2) Obama also seems determined to break records in terms of deporting people — more than 1 million since taking office; and (3) in trying be simultaneously tough and compassionate, Obama has trouble matching his words with actions whenever the immigration issue comes up.

After all, this is the same administration that claimed Secure Communities — a program that compels local and state police to hand over to U.S. immigration officials the fingerprints of people they suspect of being illegal immigrants  — was voluntary and aimed at hardened criminals when it wasn’t. And this is the same administration that tried to convince Latinos that Republicans killed the Dream Act when they didn’t.

In March, during a town hall in Washington, D.C., for the Spanish-language television network Univision, Obama insisted that so-called Dreamers — or college-age undocumented students who might otherwise be eligible for legal status under that failed piece of legislation called the DREAM Act — were not being deported because the administration was focused on removing illegal immigrants with criminal records. He also insisted that he didn’t have the executive power to change deportation policy by exempting any particular group from removal because this “would not conform with my appropriate role as president.”

Then, recently, in a move that some on the nativist right wing instinctively (and foolishly) labeled a “silent amnesty,” the Obama administration announced that it would review about 300,000 deportation cases currently in the pipeline to see if any of those people should remain in the United States and be given a work permit. Officials say that the groups most likely to benefit are Dreamers but also military veterans and their spouses. They claim to be exercising “prosecutorial discretion” to focus instead on criminals, i.e., bad actors who — after committing the civil infraction of violating immigration laws — graduated to committing criminal acts such as robbery, rape, assault, or other serious offenses.

So, here is where we’ve arrived: The Obama administration is doing pretty much what the president claimed he didn’t have the power to do and stopping the deportation of people who the president claimed weren’t being deported in the first place.

Confused? You’re not the only one.

The rightwingers are so disoriented that they don’t know which way is up. They say this new policy is a backdoor amnesty, but the administration hasn’t promised to set anyone free — only to review cases already in the queue. Besides, the critics said the same thing — prematurely it turned out — about a pair of governmental memos that simply explored administrative remedies to deportation. They looked foolish then, and they look foolish now.

Ironically, the same is true of liberals and immigration activists who are applauding the new policy as some major breakthrough. Part of that is desperation; the Obama administration has not been kind to the immigrant community or those who champion it. But part is a desire to claim credit for months of pressuring the administration to do the right thing — efforts that might now have paid off in the form of a reasonable new policy.

Here are the facts: The Obama administration has — in order to appear tough for voters  — deported many people that, in previous administrations, would never have been removed. People like battered wives who called the police to report their spouses  — and wound up being fingerprinted, handed over to immigration officials, and cleared for deportation. Or the ice cream vendor in Los Angeles who was arrested for selling frozen treats without a permit — and wound up being fingerprinted, handed over to immigration officials, and cleared for deportation.

Should Americans now be grateful that the administration is trying to correct some of its own excesses and mistakes? We’ll have to wait and see how the new policy is implemented and what good it does in the name of fairness — to repair some of the bad that has already been done in the name of politics.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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