Both camps are wrong. In fact, the Dreamer policy was largely made possible, both politically and legally, by the administration’s resolute, focused deportation policy. Immigrant advocacy groups should begin appreciating this balanced accomplishment.
Since Obama’s inauguration, advocates have pressured the president to trim way back on deportations, in the name of prosecutorial discretion. Some even suggested that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should deport only people with serious felony convictions, which would cut removals to no more than half — and probably more like a quarter — of the 397,000 ICE enforced in 2011.
But prosecutorial discretion, contrary to advocates’ apparent assumption, isn’t authority to negate whole realms of enacted law. It is authority to choose strategies and to direct resources while still achieving the basic aims of the relevant legislation.
The policy that calls for high-volume deportations is not only, or even primarily, Obama’s. It is Congress’s policy, expressed both through the substantive immigration laws and — importantly — through annual appropriations acts. Appropriators have showered the enforcement agencies with resources over the past two decades. For the past four years, those resources have been enough to support 370,000 to 400,000 ICE removals a year. Enacted appropriations have the force of law. (Incidentally, Obama’s removal level is only slightly higher than the last year of the Bush administration. He may hold a record, but it’s by only 2 percent.)
Congress has also grown increasingly specific in its enforcement mandates — for example, not only funding more than 30,000 ICE detention beds but firmly directing that they be in constant use for removals. Appropriations legislation has also specified the creation of a data system, now known as Secure Communities, permitting ICE to link seamlessly to state and local arrest information in order to concentrate efficiently on removing people with criminal records.
For Obama to drop enforcement way below the levels Congress has called for through appropriations laws would be more than legally dubious. It would also set a dangerous precedent that could haunt progressives. Picture a Romney administration thwarting, say, the new consumer protection laws by refusing to spend half the money Congress continually provides for their enforcement. Such hypothetical actions, by any administration, would conjure the ghost of Richard Nixon, who belligerently impounded huge sums that Congress had appropriated simply because enforcement didn’t conform to unilateral executive policies.