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Mitt Romney was ridiculed recently for proposing “self-deportation” as a way to reduce illegal immigration, but at least he was trying to address the problem. The same cannot be said for the Obama administration, which has seen a Bush-era trend toward declining illegal immigration come to an abrupt halt on its watch.
In a new set of findings, the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the U.S. illegal immigrant population stands at 10.9 million, plus or minus 200,000. If accurate, that would mean that illegal immigration stopped declining under Obama after falling by over 1 million in the final two years of the Bush administration. It’s not so much immigration reform as immigration reversal.
There are several reasons for the negative change. In a bid to court Hispanic voters, Obama has repeatedly signaled that he will accommodate rather than crack down on illegal immigration. This January, for instance, the administration moved, over Republican objections, to reduce the amount of time that illegal immigrants separated from family members in the U.S. will have to spend out of the country before reapplying for legal status. Under current law, illegal immigrants are barred from returning for a minimum of three years. But under the revised rules, they can claim that their absence would pose a hardship for their family and ask the Department of Homeland Security to waive the re-entry restrictions. However well-intentioned, the revised policy sends the message that the administration is not serious about reducing illegal immigration.
Reinforcing that message is the administration’s policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” which allows most illegal immigrants without a criminal record to remain in the country. The administration announced last summer that it would indefinitely delay deporting illegal immigrants without criminal records and give them a chance to apply for a work permit. As critics were quick to note, this amounted to a de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants. In drawing the distinction between illegal immigrants with and without criminal records, the administration obscured the fact that being in the country illegally was itself a crime, and thus thwarted the enforcement of immigration laws.
When the administration has paid lip service to enforcement, its actions have not matched its rhetoric. Obama has maintained that his administration has done its part to curb illegal immigration by providing federal funding for border fencing and security. Yet the evidence suggests that the administration has not really delivered. The Government Accountability Office noted in 2011 that Border Patrol had full control over only 15 percent of the border with Mexico. Of the nearly 2,000 miles separating the U.S. and Mexico, 873 – or 44 percent – are under only under the “operational control” rather than the full control of the Border Patrol. The broad majority of the border remains unsecured.
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