Three years after President Obama marched alongside Hispanic and immigrant rights activists, they took to the streets Wednesday to march against him, saying he has betrayed them by embracing George W. Bush administration efforts to stem illegal immigration.
Activists marched in Los Angeles and picketed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's appearance in New York, angered over the administration's recent embrace of an electronic verification system for employers and a program that allows local police to enforce immigration laws.
The protests highlight the tough political spot Mr. Obama faces: He enjoyed strong support from Hispanics in last year's election, but activists say he's now risking their support in the future.
"I see the sense of betrayal creeping up," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which organized the protest against Ms. Napolitano.
The coalition said the administration is using the right words on immigrant rights but taking the wrong actions to boost enforcement.
"A lot of people see the actions of Secretary Napolitano going in the opposite direction of the reform President Obama promised," she said.
The protests erupted as a report by the Center for Immigration Studies says stepped-up enforcement since 2007 has helped cut the illegal immigrant population in the United States.
The group advocates the reduction of illegal immigration through strong enforcement measures.
The report, being released Thursday morning, says the illegal immigrant population peaked at 12.5 million in summer 2007, or just as Congress was debating a legalization program, but has since fallen to 10.8 million.
Steven A. Camarota and Karen Jensenius, the report's authors, said the fact that legal immigration has not declined shows that enforcement, not the economy, is responsible for the decline in illegal immigrants.
The authors said the electronic employment verification known as E-verify and the police enforcement program were among the key enforcement tools that expanded after 2007 and contributed to the drop.
Speaking in New York to the Council on Foreign Relations, Ms. Napolitano defended the White House's decision to move forward with a crackdown on illegal immigration.
"We are expanding enforcement, but I think in the right way," she said.
In particular, she defended the local police enforcement program - known as 287(g) because of the section of law that authorizes it - saying it was created by the Clinton administration but went astray. She said the Obama administration has taken steps to add accountability and protections to the program and to push local police to focus on dangerous criminal illegals.
As former governor of Arizona with experience handling this thorny issue, Ms. Napolitano is supposed to help Mr. Obama navigate immigration by helping him craft an enforcement strategy in the near term even as she helps him push Congress for a broader bill in the long term.
Mr. Obama has called for a broad immigration agreement that legalizes most illegal immigrants. He voted for both legalization bills in both 2006 and 2007, and during last year's presidential campaign Mr. Obama repeatedly told Hispanic audiences that he was proud to have marched with them during the nationwide immigrant rights marches on May 1, 2006.
Immigrant activists suffered a similar disillusionment under Mr. Bush, who supported the 2006 and 2007 efforts to overhaul immigration but, after they failed, said he would instead boost enforcement.
Ms. Hong said the Obama administration is using all the right words about backing a broad immigration bill but is taking "massive enforcement actions."
She also said stepping up enforcement of "dysfunctional and unenforceable" laws is not a solution, and said the activists hope to push Mr. Obama away from enforcement and back toward his campaign promises.
"Today was the one event that we didn't want to have," she said. "We didn't want to be protesting President Obama's immigration policy and Napolitano's policy, it really pains us to be picketing."
One immigrant rights group said it expects Democratic senators to introduce legislation this week rolling back some of Mr. Obama's new enforcement plans.
Republicans have had mixed reactions to Mr. Obama's immigration efforts, but on Wednesday they praised him after the New York Times reported that his administration would not issue rules that would allow immigrants being detained to challenge the conditions of their detention.
"This decision will prevent a flood of frivolous lawsuits aimed at paralyzing the detention system," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
But Ms. Hong and other activists blasted the move, saying that if Mr. Obama continues to pile up enforcement without any action on legalization it will cost him politically.
They pointed to several recent studies that questioned the costs versus benefits of the local police enforcement program and that accused U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of violating immigrants' rights in home raids.
Frank Sharry, executive director of advocacy group America's Voice, said frustration with the Department of Homeland Security is growing, adding that while Ms. Napolitano has taken some positive steps "she needs to pay attention to the growing chorus of voices ... that are calling for reform of current enforcement strategies and swift action on comprehensive immigration reform."
"Not doing so could carry a heavy political cost for the administration," he said.
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