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.
That seems unlikely to change. Even though border security remains far from comprehensive, Obama has mocked Republicans for calling for increased enforcement and resources, even cracking that they will not be satisfied unless there is a moat with alligators on the border. In reality, Republicans are asking only for more meaningful enforcement.
Most glaringly, the administration has repeatedly and aggressively frustrated individual states’ attempts to make up for the federal government’s failures of enforcement by making their own efforts to get illegal immigration under control. Undoubtedly the prime example, symbolized by last month’s tense tarmac standoff between Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, is the administration’s attempt to overturn Arizona’s 2009 law making illegal immigration a crime and permitting police to check immigration status. Assailed by Obama and challenged by the Justice Department, the law has now been taken up by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, a state that has suffered more than most from the effects of illegal immigration – illegal immigration has cost Arizona taxpayers more than $2.7 billion since 2009 – has been forced into legal limbo.
But while the Obama administration’s attempts to block meaningful enforcement may appease select constituencies, they are increasingly out of step with the public’s priorities. Polls have consistently shown that Americans favor tougher measures against illegal immigration, which explains why Arizona’s law has enjoyed the backing of a solid majority of the public even as it has been denounced by the administration. That holds true even in solidly liberal bastions like Massachusetts, where 67 percent of residents believe that illegal immigration harms their state.
Illegal immigration may not be the central issue of the 2012 campaign, but it does present the Republican candidates with an opportunity to draw a clear contrast with the incumbent. Whatever one’s view of Mitt Romney’s proposal, one thing is clear: Those hoping for a more assertive federal enforcement effort won’t get it under the current president.
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