- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2015

President Obama’s immigration policies suffered a rough week, faltering in the courts, taking fire on Capitol Hill, angering his political base and even having his own deportation chief undercut his message as he struggles to find a middle-ground path to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

The busy week climaxed late Friday, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it had deported an illegal immigrant Mennonite pastor, in a case that has sparked fury among immigrant rights advocates who say it exposes the hypocrisy of Mr. Obama’s own statements about pushing for a more lenient policy that keeps families together.

The deportation was announced just hours after ICE Director Sarah Saldana was forced to walk back her statement from a day earlier that she wanted Congress to pass laws requiring state and local authorities to hold and turn over illegal immigrants.

Also Thursday, the federal judge who has temporarily halted Mr. Obama’s amnesty threatened further sanctions against the president’s attorneys, questioning whether they misled him by saying they hadn’t put any of the amnesty into action — even though they had been approving the so-called Dreamers under one part of the expanded program.

“Like an idiot, I believed that,” Judge Andrew S. Hanen said at a hearing in his Brownsville, Texas, courtroom, The Associated Press reported.

Republicans are gearing up for budget battles on the House and Senate floors this week, where immigration is likely to play a role as the GOP seeks to cut down on tax benefits available to those in the country without authorization.

Mr. Obama’s nominee to be the next attorney general, Loretta Lynch, has seen her support crater among Republicans over her backing of Mr. Obama’s amnesty moves, which she told the Senate earlier this year she believed were based on sound legal reasoning.

Judge Hanen has rejected that legal reasoning and issued an injunction. Ms. Lynch would be in charge of Mr. Obama’s appeal should she win confirmation to lead the Justice Department.

Even as conservative anger at Mr. Obama is boiling over, worry on the other side of the issue from immigrant rights advocates is growing after ICE last week deported Max Villatoro, a Mennonite pastor from Iowa who has been in the country for years, has four children who are U.S. citizens and whom the activists said was a perfect candidate for the president’s new, more lenient policies.

In addition to announcing proactive legal status for 4 million illegal immigrants, Mr. Obama in November also ordered immigration agents not to bother deporting most of the rest of the illegal immigrant population and to focus only on serious criminals.

ICE officials say Mr. Villatoro’s conviction in the 1990s for drunken driving makes him a priority for deportation, and despite a week of protests and demands for meetings between the activists and Homeland Security officials, late Friday, ICE sent Mr. Villatoro home to Honduras.

Mr. Villatoro was netted during a fugitive dragnet earlier this month that caught more than 2,000 illegal immigrants — some of whom had previously been released by state and local authorities who refused to cooperate by holding them for federal ICE agents.

That’s one reason Ms. Saldana agreed with congressional Republicans on Thursday that she would like to see Congress pass a law requiring cooperation.

“Thank you. Amen,” Ms. Saldana told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Thursday.

Clashing policies

That statement, however, is at odds with Mr. Obama’s policy of only targeting states that try to crack down on illegal immigrants while encouraging those that have lenient policies. And by Friday, amid an outcry from immigrant rights advocates who excoriated the administration over Ms. Saldana’s remarks, she was forced to eat her words.

“Any effort at federal legislation now to mandate state and local law enforcement’s compliance with ICE detainers will, in our view, be a highly counterproductive step and lead to more resistance and less cooperation in our overall efforts to promote public safety,” she said in a statement.

Despite her retreat, it’s likely Ms. Saldana’s true feelings hew closer to her testimony to Congress.

Earlier this month, at a press conference touting the 2,000 illegal immigrants netted in Operation Cross Check, Ms. Saldana and Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas lamented the states and localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Ms. Saldana described one illegal immigrant from Mexico whom the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office refused to hold. He had been deported in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2013, and had sneaked back into the U.S. each time. He had a long rap sheet, yet the sheriff’s office released him, citing a California law that prohibits more extensive cooperation.

Mr. Mayorkas said cases like this, where a community refuses to help, actually hurt public safety.

“That individual has been in the community despite his or her public safety threat — the public safety threat he or she poses,” Mr. Mayorkas said. “That is not of benefit to the community, nor to the benefit of law enforcement that is dedicated to protecting that community, because now the [detention] officers have to go in at personal risk to themselves to apprehend that very individual that we could have obtained custody of from a local facility.”

Ms. Saldana’s effort to walk back her comments didn’t sit well with House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who said it underscores the administration’s aversion to immigration enforcement.

“Her statement today reflects the Obama administration’s true priority: to not enforce the immigration laws already on the books,” the Utah Republican said, vowing that his committee will press the issue with Ms. Saldana and other Homeland Security officials.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Mr. Obama’s immigration policy, however, remains the federal courts and Judge Hanen, who has issued an injunction against the 2014 amnesty, and last week said he’s still considering sanctioning the administration for misleading him over whether it was carrying out amnesty in certain cases already.

The Justice Department tried to apologize and throw itself on the mercy of the court, with Mr. Obama’s lawyers insisting he’s trying to do right. On Saturday, Mr. Obama’s lawyers told Judge Hanen there was no harm in letting the small part of the amnesty policy go into effect that extends the time that Dreamers can be granted “deferred action” from two years to three years.

The lawyers said they should get credit for having belatedly self-reported to the court that they were already carrying out part of the amnesty, and said there’s no harm to anyone right now in any case.

“The inherent power of the court to impose sanctions is to be exercised with restraint and discretion,” the administration said in a brief filed with the court. “Here, absolutely no evidence of bad faith or willful abuse of this court’s processes exists to justify discovery into potential sanctions.”

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