After early pledges by President Obama that he would moderate the Bush administration’s tough policy on immigration enforcement, his administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy for an illegal-immigration crackdown that relies significantly on programs started by his predecessor.
A recent blitz of measures has antagonized immigrant groups and many
of Mr. Obama’s Hispanic supporters, who have opened a national campaign
against them, including small street protests in New York and Los
Angeles last week.
The administration recently undertook audits of employee paperwork at hundreds of businesses, expanded a program to verify worker immigration status that has been widely criticized as flawed, bolstered a program of cooperation between federal and local law enforcement agencies, and rejected proposals for legally binding rules governing conditions in immigration detention centers.
“We are expanding enforcement, but I think in the right way,” Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, said in an interview.
Ms. Napolitano and other administration officials argue that
no-nonsense immigration enforcement is necessary to persuade American
voters to accept legislation that would give legal status to millions
of illegal immigrants, a measure they say Mr. Obama still hopes to
advance late this year or early next.
That approach brings Mr. Obama around to the position that his Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, espoused during last year’s presidential campaign, a stance Mr. Obama rejected then as too hard on Latino and immigrant communities. (Mr. McCain did not respond to requests for comment.) Now the enforcement strategy has opened a political rift with some immigrant advocacy and Hispanic groups whose voters were crucial to the Obama victory.
“Our feelings are mixed at best,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, immigration director of the National Council of La Raza, which has joined in the criticism, aimed primarily at Ms. Napolitano. “We understand the need for sensible enforcement, but that does not mean expanding programs that often led to civil rights violations.”
Under Ms. Napolitano, immigration authorities have backed away from
the Bush administration’s frequent mass factory roundups of illegal
immigrant workers. But federal criminal prosecutions for immigration
violations have actually increased this year, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse,
a nonpartisan group that analyzes government data. In April, there were
9,037 immigration cases in the federal courts, an increase of 32
percent over April 2008, the group found.
Ms. Napolitano said in the interview that she would not call off
immigration raids entirely as some Hispanic lawmakers have suggested.
“We will continue to enforce the law and to look for effective ways to
do it,” she said. “That’s my job.”
Ms. Napolitano, who as governor of Arizona sparred with Republican legislators seeking tougher steps against illegal immigration, said she was looking for ways to make enforcement programs inherited from President George W. Bush less heavy-handed. She also wants to put the enforcement focus on illegal-immigrant gang members and convicts and on employers who routinely hire illegal immigrants so as to exploit them.
Immigration authorities have started audits of employees’ hiring
documents at more than 600 businesses nationwide. If an employer shows
a pattern of hiring immigrants whose documents cannot be verified, a
criminal investigation could follow, Ms. Napolitano said.
She has also expanded a federal program, known as E-Verify,
that allows employers to verify electronically the identity information
of new hires. Immigrant and business groups have sued to try to stop
the program, saying the databases it relies on are riddled with
inaccuracies that could lead to American citizens’ being denied jobs.
But officials of the Homeland Security Department say technological improvements have enhanced the speed and accuracy of E-Verify. With 137,000 employers now enrolled, only 0.3 percent of 6.4 million queries they have made so far in the 2009 fiscal year have resulted in denials that later proved incorrect, the officials say. That, opponents note, still means false denials for more than 19,000 people.
In addition, Ms. Napolitano has expanded a program that runs immigration checks on every person booked into local jails in some cities. And she recently announced the expansion of another program, known as 287(g) for the provision of the statute authorizing it, that allows for cooperation between federal immigration agents and state and local police agencies.
In extending 287(g), federal officials also drew up a new agreement, which all of some 66 localities currently participating have been asked to sign, that is intended to enhance federal oversight and clarify the priority on deporting those immigrants who are criminal fugitives or are already behind bars.
But advocates for immigrants said the new agreement did not include
strong protections against ethnic profiling. They were surprised, they
say, that Ms. Napolitano did not terminate the cooperation agreement
with the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., Joe Arpaio,
who calls himself the “toughest sheriff in America.” Latino groups in
Arizona have accused Mr. Arpaio of using the program to harass Hispanic
“If they reform the 287(g) program and Arpaio doesn’t change, it won’t be reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national immigrant advocacy group.
Ms. Napolitano said it would be up to Mr. Arpaio, like other current participants, to decide whether to sign and abide by the new cooperation agreement. Separately, the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation of Mr. Arpaio’s practices.
The Obama administration has received support for its immigration position from a leading Democrat, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, who will be writing an immigration overhaul bill later this year.
In preparation for what is likely to be a furious debate, Mr. Schumer has called on Democrats to show that they are serious about immigration enforcement and is even asking them to stop using the term “undocumented” to refer to immigrants who are here illegally.
Democrats have to “convince the American people there will not be new waves of illegal immigrants” after an overhaul passes, Mr. Schumer said in an interview.
Republicans who oppose any legalization of the status of illegal
immigrants say they remain unimpressed by the new enforcement measures.
“After 20 years of broken promises, it takes a lot more than token
gestures,” said Representative Brian P. Bilbray, a California
Republican who heads an immigration caucus in the House.
Michael A. Olivas, a professor of immigration law at the University of Houston, said Hispanic advocates were irked by the enforcement measures because they had seen scant sign that the administration was also moving deliberately toward an overhaul bill..
“We literally have the worst of all worlds,” Professor Olivas said.