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One Hand Clapping for Latest Obama Deportation Reforms

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With much fanfare last week, White House officials announced that the deportation of thousands of undocumented immigrants could be halted if they are not criminals and pose no national security threat. Once terminated, the individuals can apply for permission to work. A special government working group will be reviewing the current deportation caseload to clear out low-priority cases on a case-by-case basis. The idea is to make more room to deport people who have been convicted of crimes or pose a security risk. The likely beneficiaries of the termination of deportation action include undocumented students whose parents brought them to the U.S. as youngsters (commonly called DREAM Act students), spouses of U.S. military members, and same-sex partners of U.S. citizens. In large part, the announcement was simply a statement of clarity and a vow of consistency for orders by ICE director John Morton issued in June, announcing that prosecutorial discretion could be exercised to terminate certain deportation proceedings.

Some immigrant rights advocates were quick to hail the White House announcement as a sound policy decision, while progressive members of Congress like Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Luis Gutierrez applauded the measure.

There is no denying that the new procedure is good for anyone currently facing deportation and gets their proceedings terminated. In fact, just a few days before the White House announcement, deportation was terminated for one of my own clients -- the case of a 16-year-old boy, Roberto, involving minor charges over bringing a toy pellet gun to school. Roberto benefited from the new process that likely was already underway before the White House announcement. Roberto and his family were overjoyed, and the legal services attorney I assisted was extremely happy as well.

Yet the new case-by-case determination that can lead to work authorization for individuals facing deportation is a far cry from what Durbin, Harry Reid, and advocates were actually hoping for -- an across the board, blanket halt to any action against all DREAM Act-eligible students including those not facing deportation. The timing of the White House announcement was also curious, coming on the heels of high profile protests by immigrants and their advocates against the DHS Secure Communities initiative (S-Comm) that has resulted in the removal of thousands of immigrants who are not dangerous criminals or national security problems. The announcement appeared to serve as cover for the growing criticism against the White House for its harsh immigration enforcement policies. Whatever its justification, Obama's DHS has been shattering Bush era deportation and detention records.

The Obama administration also trumpets its "silent raids" or audits of employers who are suspected of hiring undocumented workers. While the raids generally have not featured the gun-toting, military-like craziness of Bush era job raids, thousands and thousands of immigrant workers continue to lose their jobs as employers are threatened with fines. Workers are driven further underground and are exploited by unscrupulous employers.

How we got to this point -- where the Obama administration has become brutally committed to immigration enforcement that preys on innocent workers and breaks up families -- may be a matter of debate. Some suspect that Obama was enforcement minded all along or that his DHS is simply doing its job. However, others feel that the harsh enforcement is a manifestation of bad negotiation strategies by Obama in his effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform or the passage of the DREAM Act. The president's own words suggest that he tried to convince Republicans that he could be tough on immigration enforcement if they would agree to a legalization program for at least some segment of the undocumented population.

"In recent years, among the greatest impediments to reform were questions about border security. . . Well, over the past two years we have answered those concerns. . .They wanted more agents on the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history...They wanted a fence. Well, that fence is now basically complete...We tripled the number of intelligence analysts working the border. ..[E]ven though we've answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time. They'll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the border patrol. They'll say we need a higher fence to support reform. Maybe they'll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied. I understand. That's politics."

Bad negotiator indeed. While the Republicans continue "to move the goal posts," the White House has dutifully played along, getting tougher and tougher on immigrant communities. Yes, the Republicans likely deserve most of the blame for the nation's failure to do the right thing for millions of immigrants who are simply here to work for an honest day's wage to put food on the family table -- immigrants who would rather be back home, but NAFTA and globalization have seen to it that steady work isn't possible back home. Yet, if Republicans are not being honest or are not negotiating fairly, then the White House does not have to be manipulated into doing the wrong thing.

While I applaud the recent partial step that has been taken on behalf many immigrants who should not be in deportation proceedings, the Obama administration needs to do more: terminate its enforcement regime of S-Comm, that continues to harass victims of crimes and low-level offenders; stop its "silent raid" audits of employers that simply results in job loss for hard working immigrants contributing to the economy; stop the removal of those who are on the severely backlogged family visa system and well as those who have committed crimes but deserve a second chance. It's time for President Obama to give us hope that he understands that we are a nation of immigrants that includes those who simply want to live, work, and contribute to our society in peace.