Many Latinos are critical of President Barack Obama's occasional championing of undocumented immigrant deportation, believing that Obama has broken his campaign promise to pass immigration reform in his first year in office. And this perception may hinder the president's plans to receive -- as he did in 2008 -- two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, a critical component of his reelection prospects.
But numbers from a new report may mean that the Obama administration is paying closer attention to this perception, and immigration reform advocates' arguments against such deportations and their separation of families. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-gathering, research and distribution organization at Syracuse University, reported last week that the number of deportation legal proceedings initiated between October and December 2011 fell by 33 percent from the previous quarter.
The document was widely circulated, and one Republican lawmaker expressed outrage at the decline.
“Last quarter’s data confirms what we knew all along: President Obama is recklessly determined to grant backdoor amnesty to thousands of illegal immigrants,” Texas Rep. Lamar Smith said in a statement.
However, the report's numbers were hotly contested by government officials. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen told The Huffington Post, "ICE is disappointed and concerned about the recent TRAC report which, similar to other reports recently released by the organization, is inaccurate and makes conclusions about ICE's enforcement efforts based on incomplete data."
"As of Feb. 6 we had this fiscal year 121,000 people removed,” Christensen added. With the first quarter being traditionally “slower,” she said, “we are still around 400,000 removals; we are congressionally funded to remove 400,000 a year.”
According to ICE, the annual number of deportations has been stable in the last few years: 370,000 in Fiscal Year 2008, 390,000 in FY 2009, 393,000 in FY 2010, and 397,000 in FY 2011.
The Obama administration was not immediately available for comment.
In its first three years, the Obama administration deported record-high numbers of undocumented immigrants, removing about 1.2 million undocumented immigrants. Critics believe that record stands in stark contrast to Obama's promise as a presidential candidate in 2008 to promote immigration reform:
"I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days," said then-Sen. Obama in an interview for Univision on May 28, 2008, according to PolitiFact.com. "But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I'm promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible."
Immigration attorney Aggie R. Hoffman noted the result.
"Obama in his campaign promised to tackle immigration in his first year," Hoffman said. "But he didn’t send a single immigration bill to Congress."
Beyond the political rhetoric, there is a lot at stake -- by many accounts Obama cannot afford to lose the Latino vote, including those who criticize the lack of progress on a comprehensive immigration plan and the number of deportations made under his administration. But on the other hand, if the idea from last week's TRAC report that deportation proceedings are down catches on, Obama may alienate a number of voters concerned with undocumented immigration.
But a key question remains: what are the real deportation numbers? Nobody knows for sure, said Dan Kowalski, editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin and curator of the LexisNexis Immigration Law Community.
“We only know how many get caught every day and how many get deported. In between, we know nothing," Kowalski said. "There is no way to prove these numbers.”
“No one knows,” Hoffman, the immigration attorney, agreed. That’s the answer; everybody is doing their own guessing and it's all politically motivated.”
Ultimately, the only way to know how many immigrants are really being deported, Kowalski said, is "if the head of ICE said, 'We have crunched our numbers and have concluded that because of the implementation of the June 17 Memo there are X percent fewer deportations."
Kowalski was referring to the so-called Morton Memo, a memorandum by ICE Director John Morton instructing his organization to concentrate their enforcing efforts on those who "pose a serious threat to public safety or national security" instead of "pursuing noncitizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the U.S."
Kowalski continued, "Only if [ICE], themselves, say that, will we know."