Strained relations between the Obama administration and advocates for immigrants: what’s the backstory?

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an interesting article on a subject that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should in the mainstream press: the strained relationship between the Obama administration on the one hand, and immigrant communities and advocates on the other. Yes, Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama last November, and yes, the immigration community applauded President Obama’s announcement last year that his administration would stop deporting law-abiding people who came into this country illegally as children. And yes, immigration reform is clearly a top priority for the administration. But that doesn’t mean that the immigration community is not enormously frustrated by many of the administration’s existing immigration policies.

As the Post article notes, the main sore point is the enormous number of deportations that have occurred under President Obama — some 400,000 per year, which is a record rate. How did it come to pass that an administration that strongly favors immigration reform and that enjoys such strong support among immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, has nevertheless vigorously pursued immigration policies that many immigrants view as harsh and unjust? Last year, James Verini published an excellent article in the Monthly that provides the backstory.

As Verini reported, the main culprit is a program called Secure Communities. Secure Communities came about in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a high-tech initiative that is supposed to deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. But that’s not how it turned out:

[I]n execution, critics say, the program has become an indiscriminate dragnet, sweeping up tens of thousands of minor offenders and tearing apart communities and families in the process. The official went on, “You have a situation where arresting people is a way of triggering this elaborate and expensive and broad removal procedure. The result is unfortunate from a lot of perspectives.”

What went wrong? A lot of it boils down to the unfortunate fetish for bipartisanship that marred much of President Obama’s first term. Obama wanted immigration reform ut knew he needed to bring some so-called “moderate” Republicans on board. He thought that a tough program like Secure Communities, which was supposed to target dangerous criminals, would allay Republican concerns.

But Republicans refused to budge, immigration reform went nowhere, and Secure Communities was allowed to, in Verisi’s words,”spin out of control.” Making things worse was the fact that deportation cases are decided by a small group of badly understaffed and overworked immigration judges, who lack the resources to give the deportation cases the thorough investigations they deserve. The resulting backlog of cases causes many people to remain incarcerated for prolonged periods of time, waiting for their case to come before the immigration court. Many of those detainees end up leaving the country voluntarily.

Verisi’s article has much, much more and is well worth a read. We all know that the Obama administration will have a tough time winning Republican support for immigration reform. Their task is made even more difficult by the fact that they will also need to do some serious fence-mending with their own allies in the immigrant community.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee