With President Obama putting off the immigration reform debate until next year, immigrant rights groups are pushing the administration to suspend tough enforcement practices so illegal immigrants aren’t punished under the current system.
While acknowledging the need for an overhaul, Mr. Obama last week acknowledged during a visit to Mexico that his agenda is too full and said a solution will have to wait until next year at the earliest — a backtrack from his campaign pledge to sign a bill in 2009.
With immigration reform slipping away, rights groups have begun to use words such as “betrayal” in describing how they feel they are faring under the Obama administration, and several have said the only interim solution would be to suspend some enforcement so illegal immigrants don’t get caught up in a system that advocates contend is broken.
“While a delay in enacting immigration reform is far from ideal, there are immediate actions that the Obama administration can take to ameliorate the human suffering caused by the misguided focus on failed enforcement measures,” said Oscar Chalon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities.
The White House referred questions about halting or modifying enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security, where Secretary Janet Napolitano has been fielding questions about the administration’s approach as she travels the country.
In an address at a border conference last week, Ms. Napolitano seemed to pour cold water on the calls for leniency.
“Our job is to enforce the laws that we have now, to do it intelligently, to do it with well-trained professionals who are well-supervised,” she said. “We will enforce this law smartly and intelligently, and if and when — and I believe it is when — the law changes, we will be prepared to enforce that law as well.”
She defended the use of a program of electronic worker verification, known as e-verify, to track illegal immigration and said using local police to enforce the laws under a program known as 287(g) is worthwhile, though she said Mr. Obama has added more accountability to the program than existed in the previous administration.
Mr. Obama has been walking a tightrope on the issue after winning a large majority of Hispanic votes in the 2008 election. He has stepped up some enforcement measures even as he says he wants a solution that would include legalization of illegal immigrants. But he also has pushed back the timetable for action until next year at the earliest, saying immigration is in line behind “a pretty big stack of bills.”
What those interim steps should be depends on one’s point of view.
Those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration say Mr. Obama has made it tougher for authorities to act by putting restrictions on raids and by rewriting the rules on those 287(g) agreements with local police.
But immigrant rights groups say the president is still expanding the local law enforcement program and complain that his embrace of e-verify will create problems for legal as well as illegal residents.
Earlier this month, Mr. Obama did win praise from immigrant rights advocates when his administration said it would impose new rules governing treatment of illegal immigrants who are being detained.
Still, advocates are unnerved by the delay until 2010 on reform legislation.
Immigration Daily, a trade publication that supports legalization, said it feared support for an overhaul would drop in Congress if Republicans do well in the midterm elections — when the party out of power traditionally gains seats.
“It is essential, therefore, that immigration advocates make the most of the fleeting political opportunity afforded by the fact that those supportive of immigrants in Congress have the votes to deliver,” said the publication, which is the online daily digest published by Immigration Law Weekly.
Mr. Obama still faces major divisions in Congress. Some lawmakers want boosted enforcement but no legalization, some support a generous legalization with minimal enforcement, and others — with strong backing from many in the business community — want to make sure whatever passes allows for a future temporary supply of workers.
Mr. Obama has supported a broad bill that would legalize undocumented immigrants, rewrite rules for legal immigration and boost staffing for enforcement. He voted for the 2006 immigration bill, which passed the Senate but never saw action in the House, and for the 2007 bill, which was defeated in the Senate.
In Mexico last week, Mr. Obama said those principles still stand.
He also blasted what he called “demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable.”
However, Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said Mr. Obama’s remarks mean the majority of Americans are “demagogues” because polls show that a majority “support enforcement of our immigration laws and oppose amnesty.”
“American workers are depending on this administration to protect their jobs from those in America illegally by enforcing immigration laws and opposing amnesty,” Mr. King said. “Instead, President Obama is determined to ram a comprehensive amnesty bill through Congress against the wishes of the majority of the American people.”
But immigrant rights groups say a legal crackdown will only anger Hispanic and immigrant voters, who were expecting legalization from Mr. Obama and instead have seen mostly stricter enforcement.
“If the enforcement record of DHS and Secretary Napolitano is the only work product of the administration, Latino and immigrant voters who were motivated by the promise of solutions will be disillusioned. So will other American voters who were promised solutions,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.