New name, same game for immigration enforcement?

By Michelle Chen Feb 03, 2009

Activists looking to the Obama administration to repudiate Bush’s most draconian immigration policies may find little to cheer about so far under Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. A new policy directive from her office seems geared toward refining the status quo: an enforcement-heavy approach focused on securing borders rather than dealing with the social impacts of migration. Though the plans are still emerging (a full departmental assessment of various immigration programs is due out later this month), Napolitano’s initial outline emphasizes immigration as a crime and law enforcement issue: programs to enlist local police in immigration crackdowns, efforts to facilitate the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes, and targeted round-ups of "fugitive" immigrants. The directive also calls for an assessment of immigrant detention facilities and the effectiveness of the heavily criticized "E-verify" system for work authorization. Though these moves signal an effort to make immigration law enforcement more efficient and effective, Tom Barry at the Transborder Project of the Americas Policy Program cautions that the aim seems to be crystallize, not decisively break from, the harsh initiatives promoted by predecessor Michael Chertoff. Despite apparent resolve to evaluate and challenge the previous programs and practices, he writes:

"the new directive will certainly disappoint those hoping for a rejection of Chertoff’s law-and-order regimen for immigration by Napolitano and the Obama administration. Instead of rejecting the enforcement-only approach as inhumane, Napolitano seems intent on rationalizing and finessing the crackdown launched by her predecessor, while making improvements around the edges…. "No questions or concerns about the multitude of issues and problems that resulted from the security-driven campaign to fortify the border and round up suspect immigrants – the value of the border wall, the central role of private prisons in immigrant detention, the wisdom of U.S. drug policy with respect to border drug-related violence, the decreased attention to political asylum and refugee policy, the consequences of workplace raids, etc. "A professional bureaucrat and politician, Napolitano is busy organizing, systematizing, and improving the crackdown that Chertoff so zealously spearheaded."

Perhaps one should expect as much from a law-enforcement focused bureaucracy. But that’s all the more reason to keep the pressure up for a wholesale restructuring of federal immigration policy via legislation.