Little New in Obama's Immigration Policy
While Embracing Bush's Programs, President Says Nuance Makes the Difference

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Although President Obama has spent much of his time in office moving away from the policies of his predecessor, on immigration enforcement, he has embraced several Bush administration initiatives, and the changes he has promised to make are couched in nuance.

In recent days, for example, the administration has announced it will expand a $1.1 billion program begun under President George W. Bush to check the immigration status of virtually all people booked into local jails over the next four years. Obama will continue a "zero-tolerance" program that charges and jails any illegal immigrant caught crossing parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. And the administration will resume construction of a $8 billion "virtual" fence of tower-mounted sensors and cameras along the border.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced only one formal change from Bush administration policy: limiting controversial raids at workplaces. Under the new policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators must give priority to prosecuting employers and can arrest workers only when officials have secured indictments, warrants or a commitment by prosecutors to target managers first.

At a news conference April 29, Obama said a stay-the-course strategy on aggressive border enforcement is needed to build public support for his pledge to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

"If the American people don't feel like you can secure the borders, then it's hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here," Obama said. "The attitude of the average American is going to be, well, you're just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year."

Obama advisers say more changes are coming to Bush's immigration policies, which they argue were ineffective because they were heavy-handed and lacking nuance. Still, Obama's effort to chart a course through the political minefield of immigration -- as Americans are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month -- risks offending both sides, angering immigrant advocates who expected more tangible changes while failing to satisfy those who want tighter immigration controls.

The Bush administration drove up deportations of illegal immigrants to record numbers in recent years -- to 358,000 in 2008 -- partly by rounding up ordinary workers, while the portion of those deported who were criminals fell.

But Obama's vow to focus on employers, smuggling networks, and criminals or illegal immigrants who repeatedly violate the law means he is taking on the groups that are harder and costlier to catch. And that means the overall number of deportations could fall, which could be seen as backsliding.

"Deporting illegal immigrants convicted of crimes is not the only important part of our overall immigration enforcement strategy," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), senior-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who warned that a decreased emphasis on deporting noncriminals would amount to a "de facto amnesty" for illegal immigrants already here and encourage more illegal immigration. "Having to choose between criminal aliens and other illegal immigrants is a false choice. The administration can and should do both."

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who has been an influential voice among Obama advisers, said she faced similar choices as head of Immigration and Naturalization Services during the Clinton administration.

"There's a tension between quality and quantity, and it may very well be that in order to get more criminals or cases involving dangerous people, it may actually mean that you're handling less cases," Meissner said. "And then that simply has to be explained."

Marshall Fitz, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said "the jury is out" on how much will change under Obama.

Advocates are waiting to see how Napolitano's stated priority of removing the "worst of the worst" is carried out through regulations and guidelines and to see whether the administration succeeds.

"They're laying down all the right markers, but ultimately we need evidence," Meissner said. "We don't have the evidence yet to document whether there's in fact going to be any difference."

ICE Chief of Staff Suzie Barr said one reason for delays is that Obama's nomination to head the agency -- John T. Morton, a career Justice Department official who built his career on prosecuting immigration crime, smuggling and human rights abuses -- was confirmed by the Senate only last week.

Still, Napolitano said the Department of Homeland Security is pushing ahead with plans to emphasize deporting illegal immigrants found at jails, not workplaces. Today, police chiefs from several major U.S. cities and the Police Foundation, a national law enforcement research group, will call on ICE to limit a program under which it has enlisted the help of 67 state and local agencies to catch illegal immigrants.

The groups say that the program should be limited to pursuing serious criminal offenders and illegal immigrants at jails and that police should not arrest people who are not suspected of committing non-immigration crimes, arguing that those activities divert scarce resources, alienate minority communities and trigger racial profiling complaints.

Barr said the changes ICE is proposing will bolster oversight "significantly," ensure that local agreements reflect ICE priorities and "strengthen the overall effectiveness of the program nationally."

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