Lamar Smith’s bizarre legislative carnival side-show on Wednesday will probably overshadow an equally empty performance by Barack Obama earlier in the week. Addressing the National Council of La Raza, Obama claimed that his hands were tied for his comprehensive immigration reform—the most he would be able to do would be to advocate the passage of the DREAM Act again. A soiled bill that was taken from its effective and well-designed roots, and transformed into a “military force multiplier” by the Democratic sausage making machine, the law denies eligible students the core federal financial aid packages that have helped poor students go to school for generations. It will force far more young people into the military than schools, and will almost certainty force even those that could potentially enter college into the military in order to afford college.
While the DREAM Act remains popular, of course, with mainstream liberals and Democrats, it is still a far cry from the “comprehensive immigration reform” that Obama promised his Latino and liberal base in 2008. On the La Raza stage, Obama blamed his meager showing in that regard on the lack of a “dance partner” on the other side of the aisle. It’s true that the legislative spectacle of pretend immigration reform is a performance as Obama’s metaphor suggests. But behind the scenes, Democrat and Republican administration policies move with choreographed grace. Hidden by legislative dramas like the DREAM Act, and absurd spectacles such as the unctuous King hearings and the criminally stupid HALT bill, the real “immigration reform” program has continued unchanged, and indeed, has only increased from Bush administration to Obama administration. Obama, in fact, has reached highs that would make George W. Bush sigh with envy—400,000 deportations in 2010, a ten percent rise over Bush’s high score.
One way that Obama has accomplished this task has been by drafting state and local law enforcement as agents in shadow deportation programs. 287 (g) a program started under Bush, and continued under Obama, trains and deputizes local police as immigration agents, encouraging police officials to racially profile suspects. Secure Communities, which has also expanded under Obama, works in a similar but amplified fashion, turning all police into defacto deputy immigration agents. While the Department of Homeland Security sold the program to local law enforcement as one that would only deport the worst of the worst, screening out misdemeanor offenders, the Immigration Advocates Network reports that the number of misdemeanor offenders being deported through S-Com has risen from 27% through the year 2010, to 35% by May 2011. ICE under Obama has also nearly doubled its workplace audits, causing employers to fire workers for problems large and small with their I-9 forms; these audits doubled from 2009 to 2010.
Under both Bush and Obama, the Justice Department has also ramped up its prosecution of illegal entry as a felony charge. Obama increased felony re-entry charges over the Bush years by nearly 60%. Incredibly, these prosecutions accounted for 25% of all federal prosecutions in the first half of 2011. Felony Re-Entry has become, under Obama’s watch, the most prosecuted federal charge in the United States. Hard jail time for what was only a few years ago a misdemeanor offense that often carried no jail time—all for answering the continuing call for work that American businesses eagerly put out for undocumented laborers each year. And while the NSEERS program, which profiles residents with origins in Middle Eastern countries was terminated last year, thousands of people already caught up in its gears continue to face deportation, detention and denial of residency for failing to register.
Whatever one’s views on immigration, this set of ambitious deportation programs has repercussions for all Americans. S-Com creates a climate of fear in immigrant communities, where crime—especially domestic abuse—goes unreported for fear that undocumented loved ones or friends will be caught up in the deportation dragnet. The program puts serious roadblocks in effective policing, and creates tempting targets for criminals in no-go zones where the police will never be called. And even that isn’t the worst of the program, as document released under an FOIA request show that the FBI is involved in the program, and is using it as a test-run for a much wider program of bio-metric data collection targeted at citizens.
That isn’t all. As felony prosecution of immigrants grows, other justice department resources are used up and other crimes go unprosecuted. Prison populations, already bursting at the seams, will only grow, with felony re-entry cases sentenced to as much as fourteen months. Immigration detention centers and [their de facto counterparts in local jails] will also continue to fill; troubled enough already by unscrupulous for profit companies, they’ll become the site of increasing human rights abuses.
But the most insidious part of the increased deportation methods, is that carnie barkers like Smith actually make Obama appear to be under attack for pro-immigration positions and policies–what Smith has characterized as an obsessive compulsion to grant amnesty that Obama for some reason cannot resist. Smith’s HALT legislation, even if one were to accept it as a normative fix for immigration, would target a small minority of immigration cases where discretion is allowed. It is also an over-the-top attack on the mild adjustments ICE claims it will make to prosecutorial discretion in the “Morton memo”, which was a response to the indiscriminate dragnet created by S-Com. But the discretion, if it is, in fact, applied with greater frequency, is not “amnesty” or legalization, but merely a delay in the deportation process while supposedly more critical cases are prosecuted.
As racist, cruel and asinine as it appears, HALT would have little impact on immigration. Legislative spectacles, like the HALT act, continue to divide Americans along race and ethnic lines, providing no solutions for those who may have legitimate interest in providing sound controls on immigration, and antagonizing almost everybody else, especially people of color, documented residents and their families. More than just a spectacle, unfortunately, it is a gift to Obama, that will allow him to walk into 2012 with Latino and liberal votes in hand, even as he reigns over the most expansive and brutal deportation regime in decades.
Update: A recent poll of American Latinos shows the impact of Obama’s policies on those who know someone caught up in the deportation machine; versus those don’t, but do know, or are related to, someone who is undocumented. For the 25% of Latinos surveyed who know someone caught up in the deportation process, Obama’s approval rating drops to 35%, as opposed to Latinos who don’t know someone in the process–their approval rating mirrors the national White average at 52%.