Latinos increasingly critical of Obama's record on immigration

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010; A03

As tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters prepare to demonstrate in Washington on Sunday in favor of an immigration overhaul, the Obama administration is finding its relationship with this largely Latino community complicated by its mixed and misunderstood record on immigration enforcement.

Compared with the Bush administration, Obama officials have substantially cut back on job-site roundups of illegal workers in favor of less controversial measures, such as auditing employers' books and expanding programs that target unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes.

The number of workers arrested for being in the country illegally -- an administrative violation of immigration law -- through work-site raids dropped nearly 70 percent, from 5,184 to 1,644 in the 2009 fiscal year, prompting an outcry from some congressional Republicans.

"At best, it appears as though immigration enforcement is being shelved and the administration is attempting to enact some sort of selective amnesty under the cover of prioritization," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) at a House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee hearing Thursday. "We cannot allow a preoccupation with criminal aliens to obscure other critical ICE missions. . . . At a time of painfully high unemployment, how can we allow illegal immigrants to take jobs away from Americans who need them?"

Yet Obama officials have not halted work-site roundups altogether, and their other enforcement programs continue to sweep up tens of thousands of non-criminal illegal immigrants. This has fueled a growing sense of betrayal among many Latinos who voted for the president.

Criticism from both sides

John T. Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security in charge of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), acknowledged that Latino disillusionment can be as pronounced as conservatives' unhappiness. "I can get criticized on the same issue from both sides on the same day," he said.

Among the advocates, much of the frustration stems from the stalled effort to legalize unauthorized immigrants as well as gnawing doubts about the president's commitment to push it through Congress this year. But perhaps no aspect of the immigration issue arouses more passion than the administration's enforcement record, because it is the one area over which the president has full control.

"When Obama said [during the campaign] it's un-American to tear a mother from her child, we believed him," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which has brought several hundred protesters to Washington. "We never imagined that a year later, we'd be denouncing his administration for surpassing the Bush administration on enforcement."

In recent months, a drumbeat of reports about small-scale work-site raids by ICE, including an operation targeting two Maryland restaurants last week in which agents arrested 29 foreigners, has also created an exaggerated impression of the extent to which such actions still take place.

A recent government report that grossly overstated the rate of deportations didn't help matters, incorrectly asserting that deportations were up 47 percent in Obama's first year. This month, immigrant advocates seized on that statistic at a Washington news conference.

But as ICE officials clarified that day, deportations have increased by 5 percent, reaching 387,790 removals in fiscal year 2009. The increase in removals is due to a 19 percent rise in deportation of criminal immigrants, but two-thirds of those removed were still non-criminals, and the total reached a record high.

Morton said the statistics reflect ICE's priorities: to protect against national security threats, remove the most dangerous criminal offenders, and target unscrupulous employers first, but without ignoring the law against illegal immigrant workers.

"We cannot be in a position in which the government only enforces the law in one direction and turns a blind eye to violations in the other direction," he said.

Fugitive operations

The record of ICE's fugitive operations teams is also mixed. The teams, which search for illegal immigrants who have evaded deportation orders, have long been criticized for bursting into the homes of non-criminal immigrants instead of targeting dangerous criminals. Under Obama, the share of criminal immigrants arrested through fugitive operations increased from less than a fourth to nearly half. Yet non-criminal immigrants continue to account for the majority of arrests, numbering nearly 20,000.

Immigrant advocates have also expressed strong reservations about the administration's shift toward auditing company employment records. The number of such audits nearly doubled in the fiscal 2009, to 1,444, with 52 companies fined for employing illegal workers.

Even programs that would appear to focus on criminal illegal immigrants have aroused the ire of immigrant advocates. They note that under the Criminal Alien Program, in which ICE agents visit prisons to identify illegal immigrants, more than half of the 232,796 immigrants targeted for deportation in fiscal 2009 were non-criminals.

Most contentious is a program that deputizes local law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants and pursue their deportation. Advocates worry that that the program, known as 287g after the legal provision that created it, lacks sufficient oversight to prevent local officials who might be prejudiced against immigrants from targeting them. Similar concerns are growing around another program, Secure Communities, in which the scanners in cooperating local jails are set up to automatically check anyone fingerprinted against homeland security databases.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter controls on immigration, said that for all the anger Obama officials have aroused among advocates, their enforcement approach is necessary.

"They need credibility on enforcement," he said, or any immigration overhaul is destined to fail.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company