Politics
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Chris Dyer peers through his binoculars to read a license plate number as he sits in his truck near near Forks, Wash., Thursday, March 17, 2011. Relations between the immigrant population of Forks -- many who work in the surrounding forests -- and the Border Patrol have been strained for many months, and tensions have increased due to the recent death of an immigrant who was trying to evade a Border Patrol agent. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) U.S. Border Patrol Agent Chris Dyer peers through his binoculars to read a license plate number as he sits in his truck near near Forks, Wash., Thursday, March 17, 2011. Relations between the immigrant population of Forks -- many who work in the surrounding forests -- and the Border Patrol have been strained for many months, and tensions have increased due to the recent death of an immigrant who was trying to evade a Border Patrol agent. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)  

White House loosens border rules for 2012

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama’s administration is quietly offering a quasi-amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, while aiming to win reelection by mobilizing a wave of new Hispanic voters, say supporters of stronger immigration law enforcement.

The new rules were quietly announced Friday with a new memo from top officials at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The “prosecutorial discretion” memo says officials need not enforce immigration laws if illegal immigrants are enrolled in an education center or if their relatives have volunteered for the US military.

“They’re pushing the [immigration] agents to be even more lax, to go further in not enforcing the law,” said Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state. “At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and looking for work, this is more bad news coming from the Obama administration… [if the administration] really cared about putting Americans back to work, it would be vigorously enforcing the law,” said Kobach, who has helped legislators in several states draft local immigration-related laws.

“We think it is an excellent step,” said Laura Vasquez, at the Hispanic-advocacy group, La Raza, which pushed for the policies, and which is working with other groups to register Hispanics to vote in 2012. “What’s very important is how the prosecutorial discretion memo is implemented” on the streets, she said.

The Hispanic vote could be crucial in the 2012 election, because the Obama campaign hopes to offset its declining poll ratings by registering new Hispanic voters in crucial swing states, such as Virginia and North Carolina.

To boost the Hispanic vote, the administration has enlisted support from Hispanic media figures, appointed an experienced Hispanic political operative to run the political side of the Obama reelection campaign, and has maintained close ties to Hispanic advocacy groups, including La Raza. For example, La Raza’s former senior vice president and lobbyist, Cecilia Munoz, was hired by the Obama administration as director of intergovernmental affairs in 2009.

On Friday, officials at ICE announced several new administrative changes to immigration enforcement.

The primary document was the six-page “prosecutorial discretion” memo, which provided new reasons for officials to not deport illegal immigrants.

“When weighing whether an exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be warranted for a given alien, ICE officials, agents and attorneys should consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to – the circumstances of the person’s arrival in the United States … particularly if the alien came to the United States as a young child; the Person’s pursuit of education… .. whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military,” said the memo.

“The factors are extremely broad and very troubling … [it] look like a stealth DREAM Act enforcement through non-enforcement,” said Kobach.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act has been repeatedly rejected by Congress from 2001 to 2010. “The deliberate non-enforcement of our immigration laws in this administration certainly seems politically motivated,” said Kobach, adding “how exactly they expect to win votes by doing this is beyond me.”

In practice, the new memo won’t make much of a difference because “ICE isn’t deporting people now,” said Jessica Vaughan, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. While pleading limited resources, “they only [deport] individuals with criminal charges,” such as felonies or several misdemeanors, she said.

There are roughly 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States, of which roughly 7 million are working. Business and Democrat-allied advocacy groups have stoutly opposed federal and state efforts to identify and deport the immigrants, but public opposition has repeatedly stopped proposals – including the Obama-backed DREAM Act – to provide the illegal immigrants with amnesties and residency permits.

On Friday, officials also announced a new advisory panel intended “to implement policies stopping the [deportation and] removal of individuals charged with, but not convicted of, minor traffic offenses who have no other criminal history or egregious immigration violations.”

Advocates for illegal immigrants have long argued that police should not deport illegal immigrants who are identified following a traffic violation. “It is not a crime to be be here illegally,” claimed B. Loewe, a spokesman for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. “Local law-enforcement enforcing immigration laws is a bad idea.”

“It is a misperception that local police are going out to pull people who look like immigrants on trumped-up traffic violations,” countered Vaughan. “They’re not removing people who made a right turn on red light without stopping, because you don’t get arrested for that.”

The agency also announced new training policies for immigration officials, a new policy to shield illegal immigrants from deportation if they seek police protection during a domestic violence episode, and a new form to be given to detained immigrants which tells them they can’t be detained for more than 48 hours by state officials.

These announcements are solutions in search of a problem, said Vaughan. For example, illegal immigrants who successfully show they are domestic violence victims already can get a “U Visa” under an established law, she said. “This is absolutely unheard of for a law enforcement agency to be told to practically apologize for doing its job” of enforcing the law,” she said.

Immigrant advocacy groups said they want to get more from the administration. “We’re continuing to work with the administration for them to show strong leadership and advancing immigration reform,” said Vasquez. “We think there are further steps the administration can take.” For example, the administration should allow people to stay in the United States while their immigration cases are settled, she said.

The administration should end the “Secure Communities” program, which allows state and local police to detain illegals for subsequent deportation by federal authorities, said Loewe. “Secure Communities is an experiment they unleashed on the public without any safeguards or regulations… local law-enforcement of immigration laws is a bad idea,” he said.

Tougher enforcement of immigration laws shouldn’t be used to combat high unemployment among poor Americans, he said. Instead, the government should start a major spending program to build schools and libraries, and levy taxes on major corporations. “When were talking about a drain on the economy,” he said, “we should look at the corporations that refuse to pay back their due.”

But the overall goal of the new memos is victory in the 2012 election, not law enforcement, said Vaughan. It is “kabuki theater… designed [by the administration] to send a signal to these groups that they are taking their concerns very seriously.”

“Latino voters are very engaged and watching carefully what is happening with immigration policies,” said Vasquez, “because they’re deeply effected by it, either because they know someone impacted by it, or themselves are impacted by it.”