PRESIDENT OBAMA has gotten more notice for what he’s failed to do on immigration policy than for what he’s done right. The fact remains that his administration is taking steps to rationalize what has become a deeply dysfunctional system. Meanwhile Republicans, increasingly nervous that they have antagonized Hispanics with their hostility to illegal immigrants, are seeking a way back into the good graces of the country’s fastest-growing minority voting bloc.
Taken together, this picture presents a stark contrast between one party trying to get something done and another that can think only of limiting the political fallout caused by obstructionism.
Mr. Obama did renege on his campaign promise to make immigration reform a first-year priority. But that almost surely would have been a losing battle, since virtually every Republican — including some who supported reform in 2007 — opposed by 2009 any real overhaul, meaning one that would put undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Blocked at that turn, the administration has tried to fashion what is at least a more sensible policy than the one it inherited. It has continued to strengthen border security, driving illegal crossings down (with help from the recession and conditions inside Mexico) to their lowest level in four decades. Although Republicans hate to admit it, the U.S.-Mexico border, manned by a record number of border patrol agents, is now under tighter control than at any time in recent memory.
At the same time, the administration developed an aggressive deportation policy that replaced random sweeps at workplaces with the targeted removal of dangerous and criminal immigrants.
As part of that effort, it widened a program known as Secure Communities, which is designed to identify jailed immigrants who may be deportable under immigration laws. Although the administration initially made a hash of coordinating and explaining the program to state and local officials, it has been generally successful in removing illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, according to a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.
In one recent example of its aggressive policy, hundreds of immigration agents fanned out in every state at the end of March, arresting more than 3,100 undocumented foreigners, about half of them with felony convictions.
But the deportation policy is not indiscriminate. The administration has begun reviewing 300,000 lower-priority illegal immigrants who have clogged the nation’s immigration courts, with an eye to suspending cases of those with no criminal history so they may remain in the country.
While some Republicans in Congress slam that approach as “backdoor amnesty,” others have begun talking about a related idea, in the interest of extending an olive branch to alienated Hispanic voters. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a putative GOP vice presidential prospect, says he is working on a proposal — call it the Dream Act Lite — that would extend legal status (but not citizenship) to undocumented young immigrants who grow up in America and attend college or serve in the military.
That’s hardly a systemic solution — it would create what would amount to a status of second-class, not-quite citizens — but it would still be an improvement over the tough-guy posturing featured in the Republican primary debates.