WASHINGTON -- There's a long-simmering tension between President Barack Obama's administration and immigrant rights advocates, who support his views, but not necessarily how he executes them. When Obama promised a first-term push for immigration reform and instead boosted deportation to record levels, some advocates found themselves in the awkward spot of supporting him for reelection, while simultaneously speaking out against him.
They're in a similar situation now. Obama repeated the promise for reform, and it looks like it may happen. But in the meantime, deportations haven't slowed, and complaints about the detention of undocumented immigrants remain. A weekend article in The New York Times revealed that about 300 people in civil immigration detention facilities were being held in solitary confinement at any given time, some for two weeks or more.
"It's just a complicated field in this political moment," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of grassroots advocacy group Presente.org. "We just have to be able to maneuver our advocacy efforts in a way where we're working both critically, but at the same time ensuring that the process is moving forward."
Those maneuvers are made more difficult by reports like the one in The New York Times. Chris Daley, deputy executive director of human rights group Just Detention International, said the Times report sheds light on an issue advocates have been aware of for a long time. His organization is focused on sexual abuse in detention centers, including how solitary confinement can lead to unsafe situations. Advocates have to be willing to call out the administration when needed, he said, while at the same time acknowledging improvements.
"We should never shy away from highlighting human rights abuses that any administration is committing," Daley said. "Doing that does not negate continuing to advocate with that administration for reforms in other areas."
The administration faced criticism on detention from a higher-level immigration reform backer as well: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the so-called "gang of eight" drafting immigration reform legislation in the Senate. He wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton requesting for more details about ICE's solitary confinement policy. Schumer said it should be used only in rare circumstances and capped at 14 days, then asked for an explanation if the Department of Homeland Security disagrees. If the agency won't address the issue, Schumer said the Senate would.
"As you know, bipartisan negotiations on common-sense immigration reform are very far along in the Senate," Schumer wrote. "Among other steps the emerging legislation will take to rationalize our immigration system, it is my hope that the proposal will include reforms to further ensure our detention system adheres to the highest possible standards of both security and human decency. To this end, if ICE will not act to limit periods of solitary confinement to no more than 14 days except in the most extreme circumstances, I will seek to address that in our forthcoming legislation."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier Tuesday that she wasn't "wild about" The New York Times story -- or as she put it, "'facts,' I say that in quotes" -- but asked ICE about its policies. "It is not something we should be doing on a regular basis," Napolitano said of solitary confinement during a Christian Science Monitor event.
In some ways, reports on sub-par treatment in detention can help advance reform efforts, said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at immigration reform advocacy group America's Voice. Seeing what's wrong makes it more important to push for legislation to make things better, she said.
"That window into the world of immigrant detention -- that's not an America I recognize or want to live in," Tramonte said. "I think that's how advocates are able to work with the administration on legislation and challenge them on the way to conduct policy, because we have a shared goal, which is an America that lives up to its best image, versus an America that treats people like trash, or worse."
Tramonte pointed out that advocates were in a similar situation ahead of the election, when many wanted to hammer Obama on the surging number of deportations. But they also wanted him to win. That tension lessened when the Obama administration announced in June that some undocumented immigrants would be allowed to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which came after years of advocacy work. Still, Tramonte said, "some people thought it was risky to keep pushing him on that so close to the election."
"People were still doing their work, regardless of the political cycle," Tramonte continued. "I just think now a lot of people are focused on this big opportunity we have to move the legislative ball forward. So you get a lot of focus on that."
Angela Kelly, vice president for immigration policy at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said advocates are "intensely focused right now" on immigration reform legislation because there are signs of momentum that put them "on the same side as the administration" on comprehensive reform.
"It's just as simple as it's a love-hate relationship," Kelly said of immigration advocates and the White House. "Sometimes we're on the same team pushing for legislation, and then other times we're looking across the table at each other when we're having administrative reform conversations. I think people are used to that kind of yin and yang."