In a 2012 presidential debate, President Barack Obama said his deportation efforts would target “criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community,” and not students or hardworking people trying to feed their families.
That year, the Obama administration set a record of 409,849 deportations. As of today, Obama has sent 2 million undocumented immigrants back to their home countries.
Obama was mistaken if he thought that vastly increasing the numbers of deportations would move the Republican-led House to pass an immigration overhaul.
The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last summer; the House has not. Failure of the House to follow suit before January would be a huge setback, forcing both House and Senate to start from scratch in 2015.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University reported that the most serious charges for half of the people deported was an immigration or traffic violation, while drug-trafficking convictions accounted for only 1 percent of deportees.
The Syracuse project found that for 22.7 percent, the most serious offense was the misdemeanor of illegal entry. Further, the federal government currently uses a broad definition of criminal behavior. For example, anyone with a speeding ticket who paid the fine is considered a convicted criminal.
In March, Obama called for a review of deportation policies, a step toward turning into reality his promises about focusing deportation efforts on people who threaten public safety.
He is rightly insisting that Congress abandon the “bed mandate” directive, which requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill 34,000 beds daily. With the economic downturn and tighter border security, the number of people illegally crossing into the United States has fallen. So ICE is meeting its quotas by ensnaring people who have infractions. Obama’s 2015 proposed budget would delete the bed quota language. He needs to fight for it.
Beyond that, Obama needs to campaign for an immigration bill, focusing his attention on House Republicans.
House Democrats are pushing to bring the Senate bill to the House floor for an up-or-down vote, the same way a vote finally took place on the Violence Against Women Act. But with only 191 Democrats, some Republicans would have to join the effort to reach 218. At least 30 House Republicans in the past have spoken out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, including Californians Jeff Denham, David Valadao, Darrell Issa and Devin Nunes. They should push for a floor vote.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential Republican presidential candidate, has rejuvenated the immigration debate in Republican circles, pointing out that people cross the border illegally “because they have no other means to work to be able to provide for their family.” He referred to it as an “act of commitment to your family.”
Illegal immigrants ought to pay a price for breaking the law. But Obama and congressional Democrats and Republicans need to craft a realistic immigration policy that accounts for the country’s real labor needs, and builds on our values as a nation of immigrants.