By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama says he backs immigration reform, announcing last month an initiative to ease deportation policies, but he has sent home over 1 million illegal immigrants in 2-1/2 years -- on pace to deport more in one term than George W. Bush did in two.
The Obama administration had deported about 1.06 million as of September 12, against 1.57 million in Bush's two full presidential terms.
This seeming contradiction between rhetoric and reality is a key element of debate over U.S. immigration policy, and stakes are high for 2012's presidential election as Obama faces criticism from both conservatives and liberals.
In 2008, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama over Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin.
But Obama fell short on his promise to have a comprehensive reform bill in Congress in his first year. And despite his push of the DREAM Act in 2010, that bill failed in the Senate at the end of the Democrat-run 111th Congress.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, said because Congress is unlikely to consider immigration reform any time soon, "It has to stay there front and center and in the face of folks that are allowing this issue to fester."
The Administration announced its initiative August 18, a step some analysts say gave up on an uncooperative Congress and aimed to appease advocates of more liberal immigration laws.
Some 11.2 million illegal immigrants live and work in the United States today, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The initiative is expected to help an estimated two million young people who under the stalled DREAM could have achieved citizenship by pursuing higher education or military service.
CLEARING THE BACKLOG
Under the move, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will review and clear out low-priority cases from 300,000 backlogged deportation proceedings.
Continued focus of immigration enforcement on those with criminal records would effectively leave alone those who came at a young age and have spent years in the United States.
Republican critics say directing immigration authorities to use prosecutorial discretion to administratively implement such changes ignores Congress and existing federal law.
A June 17 memo by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton defined prosecutorial discretion as an agency's authority "to decide to what degree to enforce the law against a particular individual."
The memo "reiterated and clarified" the priorities on which the new initiative is based, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote August 18 on behalf of Obama in a letter to 21 senators.
An ICE official who declined to be named said, "We have limited resources and if their best use in protecting the American public means exercising discretion, then that's what we're going to do."
House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, calls it a "plot."
"The writers of the U.S. Constitution put Congress in charge of setting our immigration policy ... (President Obama) does not get to pick and choose," Smith said in an email.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, however, said: "The Administration has used its discretion very sparingly ... No one should forget that immigration is critically important to Latinos, a community whose power at the polls continues to grow."
Hispanics, the largest and fastest-growing U.S. minority group, now number over 50.5 million -- 16.3 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census.
They also face higher unemployment and foreclosure rates, according to the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and NCLR, the largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the country.
It remains to be seen if Hispanic groups pushing for immigration reform will be satisfied by the August initiative, even as Republican critics say it has gone too far.
On September 12, Smith and House Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt sent a letter to Napolitano.
"In addition to our concerns about the administration's apparent abandonment of immigration enforcement, we also have significant concerns about how this new policy was developed."
Martinez said, "(Obama) support was dropping among Latinos ... If at the end of the day what you have is an announcement that is sound from a policy perspective and it is actually good politically -- we should be so lucky to have more of those."
But Martinez said they will watch implementation closely.
"Obviously, you've heard the caveats," she said. "It's a very important announcement -- and just as important (is) that it's implemented robustly and appropriately."
The administration's past deportation policies are a reason some reformers are not yet convinced of Obama's commitment.
Immigration authorities are funded to remove 400,000 people a year, according to the unnamed ICE official.
In fiscal year 2010, the last full year of data, ICE removed nearly 393,000 undocumented immigrants -- a record, and almost 24,000 more than in FY2008, Bush's last full fiscal year in office.
Over two-thirds of the non-criminals removed in FY2010 were caught as they crossed the border, were recent arrivals, or were repeat violators previously deported, the White House says.
Convicted criminals numbered about 196,000 of those removed, an increase of 71 percent from Bush in FY2008.
Of the over 1 million removed so far under Obama, 46 percent have been convicted criminals and 54 percent non-criminals. Bush's removals were 41 percent criminal and 59 non-criminal, according to data provided by ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.
ICE credits the increased removal of those with criminal records to expansion of the Secure Communities Program, where local authorities automatically send fingerprints of those arrested to ICE. Secure Communities has grown under Obama from 14 jurisdictions to more than 1,300, and to all border areas.
Critics say that despite the administration's rhetorical stress on targeting those with criminal records and a level-off in illegal immigration, programs such as Secure Communities are in practice leading to unjust deportations.
Democratic Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez was arrested at a pro-reform rally at the White House on July 27.
"(Obama's) been arguing that he can't simply go around Congress, that he's not a president who governs by fiat, right?" Gutierrez said later. "It's a little contradiction between 1 million deportations and claiming they use it less than Bush."
With under a month left in FY2011, ICE has reported 368,920 removals -- about half criminals and half non-criminals.
Last week, Gutierrez traveled to Chicago to explain the initiative to constituents after a policy briefing by DHS.
After the DREAM failed, Gutierrez and others have pushed Obama on an immigration initiative like that of August 18 -- a "critical foundation," but, he said, "There's more to be done."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)
(The following story was corrected to fix Bush's term reference in first paragraph)