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Rep. Luis Gutierrez

Rep. Luis Gutierrez

Posted: April 17, 2010 04:10 PM

Obama Must Act To Ease Arizona's Deportation Panic

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It is open season on the Latino community in Arizona. In Phoenix, Tucson, and across the state, people in Latino neighborhoods are afraid to leave their houses, afraid to be apart from their children for even a minute, and afraid to walk the streets because they feel their arrest on suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant could happen at any moment. It is a horrifying glimpse at what our future holds across the country if we continue down the path the Obama administration is leading us on immigration.

This week, we saw how destructive things are getting. The combination of a harsh piece of anti-immigrant legislation advancing in the Arizona legislature and a massive, well-publicized federal enforcement action against a broad human smuggling network has sent the unmistakable message to Arizona's one million immigrants and two million Hispanics: there is a target on your backs and authorities are coming after you.

President Obama, who promised immigration reform but has failed to make it a priority or use his office to make good on his campaign promises, is now able to see what lies ahead. The Obama administration has escalated mass deportation as our singular approach to immigrants and this has combined in Arizona with anti-immigrant hysteria that is festering to the point that state and local elected opportunists are taking matters into their own hands - with complete federal acquiescence.

We are now deporting people at a rate of 1,000 per day -- with nearly half of the arrests in the state of Arizona -- and now the state legislature is on the verge of escalating that pace dramatically. A law (SB 1070) that passed the state House this week and is probably headed to Governor's desk for signature, authorizes state and local police to round up anyone "suspected" of being an undocumented immigrant. As if that weren't bad enough, the law throws in a bounty of $500 in fines and a possible misdemeanor conviction on criminal trespassing if the particular lawman involved happens to guess correctly and the person they arrest cannot prove they are here legally.

As we know from experience in Arizona and elsewhere, giving police such a broad mandate to arrest and book people "suspected" of looking a certain way isn't just an invitation to racial profiling, it's like waving a green flag and saying "gentlemen start your engines." It is an insult to American justice and one of the harshest assaults on basic civil rights in recent American history.

Then Thursday, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency compounded the panic with one of the biggest Arizona enforcement actions in history, taking down an alleged state-wide smuggling ring. Let's be clear, I support targeted enforcement against smuggling rings exploiting our broken immigration system and preying on vulnerable immigrants, but the timing of this show of force could not have been more destructive.

Television screens across the state flashed images of 800 federal officers unleashed in Phoenix and Tucson, taking people to jail and multiplying the sense of siege in immigrant and Latino communities. After years of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Latino neighborhood sweeps, harsher and harsher state laws that target Latinos and immigrants, and escalating federal deportation, I'm afraid we have turned a very dangerous corner in the war on immigrants.

And we have heard nothing from the President.

A man who told the Latino electorate that he saw undocumented immigrants as future citizens, not criminals or deportees, has not lifted a finger. It isn't as if his administration doesn't have a clear immigration policy; they do. It's called deportation only. And they are removing immigrants, mostly Latino, at a faster pace than the Bush administration ever did. All of the rhetoric that a new enforcement strategy targeting serious violent criminals was being adopted has been revealed as empty rhetoric.

When the Washington Post published internal memos from Homeland Security headquarters to their field agents instructing them that their job performance would be judged by filling deportation quotas for simple visa and immigration violations, all of the President's lofty promises about a new approach went out the window. Either the President, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, and ICE Assistant Secretary Morton have been misleading the American people and Congress about their enforcement priorities or they have no control over what their agencies are doing.

At a minimum, the President has failed to put his heart into reforming immigration. He has dropped the ball in the first year of his presidency and as we head into election season in his second year, we are seeing more of the same. Unless the President acts forcefully in the coming weeks to drive the immigration reform issue forward, we are going to see a lot more of the devastation we are seeing in Arizona this week.

I know the President knows what we need to do. We need comprehensive immigration reform to diffuse the crisis we are facing. We need the federal government to assert their supremacy over the immigration issue and make it clear to state legislatures, cowboy cops, and the American people that the federal government is in charge and effectively enforcing and regulating immigration. We need legal immigration as an alternative to illegal immigration and a way of getting the millions of unauthorized immigrants already here to get legal and get in compliance with our laws.

The President knows what we must do, but he alone must summon the political will in Washington to do it. The short-run calculations of politics are deeply rooted and hard to overcome, but as we saw in the health care debate, he can do it if he wants to. He needs to stop appeasing those who embrace the persistent fantasy of mass deportation or the delusion that by making America so hostile and uninviting, tens of millions of immigrants will deport themselves. Obama the President needs to stand up for what Obama the candidate and what Obama the Senator and what Obama the Chicago community organizer stood for and lead the Congress towards reform.

But I'm already afraid that for the people of Arizona, he has waited too long. Even if an immigration reform bill passed tomorrow, Latino families in Arizona still face the prospect of going out into a hostile world next week. I know thousands of Latino families will hesitate before dropping their kids off at school or will have that terrifying twinge of fear before venturing out to buy groceries or go to work. If we allow police-state tactics in Arizona to continue, the level of basic community security will erode and civil unrest could escalate. The President must act now to diffuse the Arizona panic and take control of a deteriorating situation that could become a national crisis.

 

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