Obama is deporting immigrants faster than Bush. Republicans don’t think that’s enough.

August 27, 2012

The GOP is toughening its stance on immigration in its 2012 party platform. But that's partly in response to Obama's own hawkish stance on immigration enforcement. In fact, both parties are now pushing different programs with the same goal: to increase enforcement of laws that target illegal immigration on the local level.


(Source: AP)

As of July, Obama deported 1.4 million illegal immigrants since the beginning of his administration — that's 1.5 times more immigrants on average than Bush deported every month, according to official numbers from the Department of Homeland Security*. But that's only part of Obama's deportation strategy: The administration's stated goal is to prioritize the deportation of criminal, dangerous illegal immigrants. And it's promised to make a new program called Secure Communities mandatory by 2013, which would force local law enforcement to share fingerprints of those arrested with the Department of Homeland Security, which has immigration records, through the FBI.

The GOP platform, however, accuses the Obama administration of having "undermined the rule of law at every turn" and "failed to enforce the legal means for workers or employers who want to operate within the law," according to a draft version that Politico obtained. The platform doubles down on Obama's own promise to prioritize the deportation of immigrants with a criminal history. The GOP is calling to "expedite expulsion of criminal aliens" — and wants to expand the list of deportable offenses to include "gang membership," though it's unclear how that would be defined.

Moreover, Republicans want to revive a program called 287(g). Under this program, local communities can opt to have law enforcement officials trained by federal agents to arrest and detain suspects because of immigration status. The program peaked under Bush, but Obama has scaled it back with the intention of phasing it out altogether. The Obama administration revoked part of its 287(g) agreements with Arizona in June, citing the Justice Department's lawsuit allegations of racial profiling and civil rights abuses by local law enforcement, including Maricopa County's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

There is also evidence that 287(g) hasn't been meeting the Obama administration's stated goal of targeting dangerous, criminal immigrants for deportation: According to a study from the independent Migration Policy Institute, half of those detained under 287(g) were people who had committed misdemeanors or traffic offenses. What's more, MPI found that "state and local officials operate 287(g) programs according to priorities shaped largely by political pressures." That's another reason why the Obama administration wants to transition to Secure Communities, which would shift more enforcement authority to the federal government. "It takes those decisions out of the hands of local police officers," says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center.

So both parties want local law enforcement to participate vigorously in immigration enforcement. The major difference is that Republicans want to give more power and discretion to local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, while Obama wants local authorities to use a federal biometric database to inform decisions about immigration enforcement.

Pro-immigration and civil liberties advocates aren't thrilled with either option: They argue that Secure Communities is also prone to abuse. A October 2011 report from UC-Berkeley law school points out that a much higher number of those arrested through the program are placed in federal detention than usual, for instance. Others worry that Secure Communities program could still encourage racial profiling if local law enforcement knows that those arrested will be screened for their immigration status. "It sounds great on paper, but in practice, a lot of people are picked up and arrested who might not be otherwise," says Giovagnoli.

To be sure, the GOP platform includes a host of other immigration measures that go well beyond what Obama and the Democrats support — prohibiting in-state tuition for college students who are undocumented, opposing amnesty of any kind, and reiterating the GOP's 2008 platform proposal to force employers to check their workers' immigration status through E-Verify.

But on local immigration enforcement, Obama and Republicans are effectively competing to see whose policies are tougher.

*Clarification: Bush deported 2 million immigrants over the course of two terms. That's more than the 1.4 million that Obama has deported to date during his first term. But Obama is deporting them in higher numbers every month than Bush did—1.5 times more. Sorry for any earlier confusion.

The Obama administration has also used what a 2010 Post story deemed to be "unusual methods" to increase deportations, including the extension of a repatriation program that counted for 6,500 deportations to Mexico in 2010, although it denies that it was "cooking the books" to raise its numbers. The House Judiciary Committee also says it's unearthed new evidence that the White House was inflating its deportation numbers. I've contacted the White House and outside experts to clarify, and I'll likely write a separate post on the issue when I hear back.

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Ezra Klein | August 27, 2012