Obama, in Re-election Mode, Promises Immigration Reform Again

But is this enough to outweigh the administration's love affair with deportation?

By Julianne Hing Apr 21, 2011

As President Obama winds into re-election mode, it’s time for him to remind immigrant communities that got him into office that he hasn’t forgotten about immigration reform.

Before President Obama hit the road for his quick sweep through the West Coast this week, he gathered dozens of folks from a broad swath from the faith, labor, business and political worlds to talk immigration on Tuesday. At the meeting, according to the White House, Obama repeated his commitment to working for immigration reform, but only through congressional legislative action. He also reiterated his deep disappointment in the federal DREAM Act’s failure to pass the Senate in December, and urged the people in the room to keep pushing their constituencies to demand immigration reform.

Such are the political promises that immigrant communities are by now well familiar with from President Obama while they wait for the unlikely event that Congress might take up comprehensive immigration reform. Immigrant rights groups expressed concerned, too, that Obama’s done more than enough on immigration since he’s been in office, and very little of it has been to the benefit of immigrant communities and the rest of the country.

"While we appreciate the President’s effort to keep immigration reform on the national agenda, his actions belie his intent," said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "If the President genuinely wanted to fix the broken immigration system, he would respond to the growing chorus of voices calling for the suspension of the Secure Communities program and move to legalize instead of further criminalize our immigrant communities."

Others were more encouraged.

"The President made it clear he is willing to use whatever political capital he has to make the case for immigration reform that can fix our nation’s dysfunctional immigration system in a way that ends illegal immigration," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the D.C. immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice.

"It was gratifying to hear the President reaffirm his commitment to immigration reform. It shows that he is raising the stakes on the issue and underscores the fact that doing nothing is not an option."

Except that by refusing to exercise the administrative powers he has to stop deporting undocumented immigrants while rapidly expanding enforcement programs like Secure Communities, Obama has actually done quite a bit as president. He currently holds the record for overseeing the most deportations of undocumented immigrants in a single year.

Back in 2008 Obama positioned himself as an ally to immigrant communities with campaign words so affecting that he may have convinced immigrant communities that he understood how persecuted they felt by Bush-era immigration enforcement.

"When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it," Obama said in 2008, at a National Council of La Raza conference.

Three years later it turns out that all that is still happening. The workplace raids that President Bush was so fond of have been replaced by "silent raids" in the form of immigration audits of 1,000 businesses, and counting, across the country. Under 287(g) agreements, which empower local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents, and Secure Communities, which allows law enforcement to cross-check anyone who’s booked in local and county jails with federal law enforcement databases, hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart. Even though the stated intent of such programs has been to crack down on hardened criminals, the majority of people who’ve been deported under Secure Communities had no criminal record at all, or had been convicted of infractions like traffic offenses.

Members of Congress who themselves recognize that immediate relief must start somewhere else, have begun letting the President know that he has much more power than he’s been willing to exercise.

"He has a great amount of leeway and prosecutorial discretion in how deportation policy is meted out and how resources are targeted in the government he runs," said Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has been on a multi-city tour around the country to use his administrative power to stop deporting specific sets of immigrants.

"So we are asking the President to act at least to stop the deportations of the families of U.S. citizens, young people who should have been legalized via the DREAM Act, and stop the expansion of programs that weaken public safety and serve as a dragnet for law-abiding immigrants by enlisting state and local police in federal enforcement."

Earlier this month 22 Democratic senators also sent a letter to Obama asking him to halt the deportations of undocumented immigrant youth who would be eligible for the federal DREAM Act. The senators’ letter echoed calls that immigrant youth have been calling for since the DREAM Act’s failure in December.

The Obama administration continues to refuse these options.

"At end of day we feel the answer to this problem is a legislative answer and we are working every day to reach the day when the president can sign an immigration reform that can fix this problem," said Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Munoz in March, the AP reported.