In an effort to win Republican support for reforming a cruel and dysfunctional immigration system, President Obama has adopted enforcement policies that have produced almost 2 million deportations in five years, including a record 410,000 in fiscal year 2012. Between 2010 and 2012, 200,000 parents of US-born children were deported. As a result, approximately 5,000 children of deportees are in foster care today. If the trend continues, that number is expected to reach 15,000 by January 2017.
Obama’s policy is a moral failure, but it has also hurt him politically. Despite the draconian measures, Republicans still accuse him of being too lenient, while the policy has angered some of his staunchest supporters. In response, in 2011 the president announced that deportations would be limited to serious criminals, and in 2012 he announced a temporary halt in deportations of young people who qualify under DREAM Act guidelines with respect to education or military service. Even so, a New York Times study released this April of 3.2 million deportations over ten years shows that only 20 percent of deportees had committed serious crimes; about two-thirds had committed only minor infractions like traffic violations.
Obama has said he lacks the legal authority to discontinue his strict enforcement policy, but experts disagree. As the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist observed, an “agency’s decision not to prosecute or enforce [a law] is a decision generally committed to an agency’s absolute discretion.” Moreover, the president’s own actions—including not only the DREAM deferral but also a measure adopted last year that de facto legalizes military families—are exercises in such discretion.
The White House has warned that slowing deportations could impede reform, because Republicans will not trust the president to enforce future legislation. But executive measures now could actually spur reform; they would not only rally electoral support for the president and Democrats in immigrant communities, but also drive a wedge between anti-immigrant GOP hard-liners and mainstream Republicans who support reform because they know they can’t continue to alienate the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian populations (the Hispanic share of the electorate alone is expected to double by 2030).
Democrats certainly can’t take the support of immigrant communities for granted. A recent poll found that if deportations continue at the current pace, 34 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of Asian-Americans will blame Obama and the Democrats. Since the 2012 election, the president’s approval rating among Latinos has fallen from 73 to 54 percent.
Obama may finally be getting the message. After meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in April, leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus expressed renewed hope for executive action. Representative Luis Gutiérrez vows that if there’s no legislative action by July and Obama doesn’t take action himself, activists will turn up the street heat. At the very least, there must be a substantial reduction in deportations and the number of families torn apart. Other measures include broadening the deportation deferrals from DREAMers to other categories of people, such as the undocumented parents of children who have citizenship, as well as granting temporary legal status and expanded access to work permits.
Good-faith enforcement of the serious-crimes limitation alone could reduce deportations by 80 percent. Nothing in the law bars such an approach, and smart politics and basic compassion compel it.