11/01/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Deportations and Immigration Enforcement: It's Not All Obama's Fault

As the election draws near, candidates are going head to head to fight for the Latino vote. While Obama retains 73 percent of Latino registered voters, Republican campaign materials have tried to highlight his weak stance on immigration, citing his inaction on immigration reform and rising deportation numbers. While the number of deportations have in fact risen, we have to think about this more thoroughly. Is President Obama really to blame?

Contrary to what we might think, the deportation of undocumented immigrants actually takes a long period of time. They are not simply scooped up and thrown over the border. Deportation, technically called removal proceedings, is a legal process that consists of multiple court hearings and the ability to request and appeal for relief from deportation. In addition, individuals who are put into deportation proceedings due to criminal activity have to serve their time in prison before being removed. This means that the actual deportation process -- from the issuance of a notice to appear in immigration court to leaving the country -- can actually take years.

What does this mean in the context of Obama's rising deportation numbers? Basically, a number of the people that the Obama administration is actually deporting are people who have been in deportation proceedings for years. These are people who could have been put in proceedings under the Bush administration. In essence, the length of the process means that some of these deportations are the historical legacy of Obama's predecessors.

However, the continued growth of the numbers of deportation cases does mean that the Obama administration is also continuing to initiate proceedings and deport individuals. Yet, I ask again- is this all Obama's fault?

If the battle over Arizona's SB-1070 has taught us anything, it is that "immigration policy" is actually a complex, and potentially contradictory, group of policies that are enacted and enforced at local, state, and national levels. The nature of policies can differ from state to state, county to county, or even within a city depending on jurisdiction, that is, whether state or city police detain someone. In the past couple of years, growing anti-immigrant sentiment has led to the passage of more of anti-immigrant laws and the implementation of immigration enforcement policies.

Secure Communities is one such policy which has increased co-operation between federal immigration authorities and local police officers in order to create more "secure communities" by identifying and deporting criminals. This policy has created a massive upsurge in the numbers of undocumented immigrants who police detain and turn over to federal authorities. However, most of these people are not criminals but rather undocumented immigrants who seek to contribute to society by working and participating in their communities.

This change in federal enforcement strategy has simply increased the number of individuals who are at risk for deportation. For instance, Arizona's SB-1070, and other copycat laws like it, allow police to determine undocumented immigrant's status and potentially turn them over to immigration authorities. Undocumented immigrants who live in states that do not have these laws are still at risk for being stopped and detained at sobriety checkpoints. The number of these checkpoints have risen as cities use them to generate revenue. Given this growth in risk, it is surprising that more individuals have not been detained or entered into deportation proceedings.

Immigration policies, and really any type of policy, are implemented on multiple levels. While the president has the power to promote change on the national level, this has to be negotiated with Congress and/or the responsible agency. Additionally, the President does not have the power to determine state or local policies. These are the policies that are partially responsible for putting undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation. We can't expect that one person will have the power to instantly reverse all of these policies.

Given these historical and structural constraints, Obama has made a good faith effort to create pro-immigrant policies from within the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which has already started providing a type of temporary legal status to undocumented young adults, there has been a call for prosecutorial discretion for all non-criminal immigrants. Additionally, USCIS is in the process of changing the legalization process so that citizens who are petitioning for the legalization of their undocumented family members- including their parents, spouses, and children -- will be able to do this without having to leave the country for an extended period of time. Currently, there are undocumented people who are eligible to be petitioned but choose not to out of fear of being separated from their families for up to ten years prior to receiving approval to re-enter the country. Fixing this process, will not only ease the lives of citizen and undocumented petitioners, but it will increase the number of people who actually petition for legalization under the current laws.

Even after implementing these positive policies, ICE agents in the field are challenging Obama, suing to stop the DACA program. This further shows the complex and multi-leveled nature of formulating and implementing immigration policy. If Obama is not re-elected it is likely that DACA and other positive policies will be reversed.

While Obama has not created sweeping change (and let's face it, that's kind of a ridiculous expectation to put on one person), he has done his part to change policies where he had the ability to do so. Ultimately we need to pass and implement comprehensive immigration reform that is humane and just, that does not separate families for years nor create immigration sanctions that will have vastly negative implications for the future (as was the case with IRCA). The chances of doing this are stronger with President Obama in office. While he cannot bring us the change we want all by himself, another four years with him in office could provide us with a greater chance of winning pro-immigrant federal immigration policies.