With Obama considering whether to act to ease deportations, nearly two dozen Republican Senators today fired off a letter putting him on notice: Any such move would constitute an abdication of the responsibility to secure the border, an abandonment of the rule of law, and a threat to the country’s constitutional order.
This is an occasion to explain what’s really going on with deportations — a topic that has engendered much confusion — and to lay out what the de facto position of many GOP lawmakers in this debate really is. That position is this: The only policy response we can support to address the 11 million is to deport as many people from the interior as possible, regardless of whether they are minor offenders with families and lives in the United States.
This entails going down a bit of a rabbit hole, but bear with me.
The GOP Senators’ case in the letter is that deportations are already down — Obama is already failing to enforce the law — and further changes would make that worse. “Clearly, the urgent task facing your administration is to improve immigration enforcement, not to look for new ways to weaken it,” they write. Similarly, John Boehner suggests Republicans are hard pressed to act on immigration because Obama already can’t be trusted, and unilateral action will exacerbate mistrust.
The Senators cite a recent L.A. Times story — hailed by the right — that notes: “Expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have fallen steadily since his first year in office, and are down more than 40% since 2009.”
The Times story is correct. But Republicans are seizing on it in a selective way. The cited stat concerns “interior removals,” i.e., people who are settled and working here. That does not include “border removals,” i.e., people deported after getting caught crossing. Here, based on Department of Homeland Security data, is what has happened since 2008 in both categories:
This chart (special thanks to the Post’s Peyton Craighill for putting it together) shows that interior removals are down. But border removals are up. The GOP Senators elide the latter fact, focusing only on the former one (in spite of the fact that Republicans say they want greater border security; but that’s a separate argument).
This isn’t merely garden variety GOP cherry-picking to make a political argument. It has actual policy implications. What the chart shows is what we know: the administration has shifted resources from interior enforcement to border enforcement. This was rooted in the idea that resources are better expended on border security than on enforcement against minor offenders, as laid out in a 2011 DHS memo prioritizing enforcement against felons and gang members over, say, minors, the elderly, and longtime residents, and as formalized in the 2012 decision to defer deportation of children brought here illegally.
When Republicans criticize this as enforcement failure, what they mean is that shifting law enforcement resources to the border — and deprioritizing the enforcement of minor offenders with lives here — is bad policy. This is not a criticism of the GOP position, or a defense of Obama’s position. It’s an objective description of both of them. The view of many Republicans isn’t merely that the falling line in the chart represents an abdication of responsibility to enforce the law. It’s also that interior deportations should not be dropping; they should be rising. Republicans believe the falling line represents failure, and that this isn’t mitigated by the rising line.
Roy Beck of Numbers USA spelled out the rationale behind that position as follows: “Without the threat of deportation, no one will feel they have to leave. My question is: Is the only way to get deported if you kill or mug?”
The position of many GOP lawmakers is that the proper response to our immigration crisis is to do everything possible to maximize interior removals — no matter who gets removed — so the threat of deportation remains for minor and major offenders alike. Do some Republican lawmakers say we should undertake reform that would confer legal status on many of the 11 million? Yes, they say that, and that constitutes a genuine break with the past. But virtually all the GOP Senators who signed today’s letter also voted against the Senate immigration bill (as did most of the Senate GOP caucus) that would have accomplished this. Meanwhile, House GOP leaders have not offered any formal proposals to confer legal status on the 11 million, and the House has voted against allowing Obama to exercise deportation discretion.
Therefore, the de facto GOP position of most GOP lawmakers on the 11 million is to do nothing other than urge Obama to stop deprioritizing some targets of deportation and remove more people from the interior, no matter who they are.
When Jeb Bush urged a morally nuanced view of the plight of law-breaking immigrants, he was also suggesting Republicans do the hard work of figuring out what terms and conditions it will take for them to accept integrating the 11 million into American society. But that isn’t happening. Instead, for all practical purposes, the Republican position remains that we should do as much as possible to get them all out of here.