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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

Immigration: Balanced policy badly needed

On May 10, President Obama gave a speech on immigration reform in El Paso, igniting hopes that this long-neglected issue would move to the center of the national political arena as the U.S. heads into another election cycle. But with little appetite for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in either the House or Senate, the battle over the fate of millions of migrants and undocumented persons continues to be waged in individual states with disconcerting results. Since the passage of Arizona's notorious SB1070 immigration law, described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as "draconian," four states have passed similar pieces of legislation. The following article was written by Ashley McKinless, a University of Virginia student and an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Until the federal government takes the lead in enacting just and humane immigration reform, a patchwork of state laws will threaten the human rights and dignity of immigrants and their families, as well as the safety and solidarity of entire communities across the U.S. Despite the president's commitment to "keep up the fight to pass genuine, comprehensive reform," the administration's record and rhetoric on immigration are unsettling. In El Paso, President Obama pointed to the escalation of border security and intensified deportation efforts purportedly focused on violent offenders and convicted criminals, saying his administration has " gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement."

The numbers back up this claim: In 2010, 393,000 undocumented immigrants were deported, a 10 percent increase from 2008 and 25 percent increase from 2007. These record numbers are partly thanks to the controversial federal program "Secure Communities," through which everyone who is arrested and booked has their fingerprints checked against the Department of Homeland Security immigration records. Though intended to indentify and deport the worst violent criminal offenders, data released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) show that 60 percent of those deported under the program have been non-criminals or those who have only committed misdemeanor offenses or traffic violations.

The administration touts a hard stance on border security as well. There are now over 20,000 Border Patrol agents, twice as many as in 2004, as well as 1,200 National Guard troops on the border. The results of this escalated enforcement are two-sided. On the one hand, the number of people attempting to cross the border without documentation has decreased: border apprehensions have dropped by 40 percent in the past two years—though this could say more about the lack of job opportunities in the United States than border patrol. Even so, improved technology and "more boots on the ground" do not deter everyone. Tragically, desperate migrants continue to risk their lives in order to get into the United States, facing longer and more dangerous treks through treacherous desert terrain. The number of migrant border deaths has actually increased over the past decade even as the number of apprehensions has decreased. In 2009, there were 419 known border deaths, more than double the number recorded in 1995. The official statistics for 2010 have not been released, but The Arizona Daily Star, which began tracking border deaths recorded in three Arizona counties in 2004, reported 249 deaths in 2010, up from 219 in 2004, indicating a continuation of the upward trend in deaths over the past decade.

President Obama defended his record, saying, "Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don't relish the pain that it causes in the lives of people who are just trying to get by ... [As] long as the current laws are on the books, it's not just hardened felons who are subject to removal, but sometimes families who are just trying to earn a living, or bright, eager students, or decent people with the best of intentions. And sometimes when I talk to immigration advocates, they wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that's not how a democracy works."

But in fact, there are a number of steps the president could take even within the constraints of current laws to ameliorate their negative effect on the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who are a vital and enriching part of U.S. society. In April, a group of legal experts released a memorandum that summarized various executive branch administrative powers that are at the disposal of the president in the context of immigration. Prosecutorial discretion is a fundamental part of the U.S. justice system and one that has been affirmed by the Supreme Court. When resources are limited, agencies should and must make decisions about priorities and immigration enforcement is no different. The Department of Homeland Security decides who will be investigated, what leads will be followed, what cases will make it to trial, and ultimately, who will be deported.

If the Obama administration is focused on those undocumented persons who threaten the safety of U.S. communities, steps can be taken to ensure that resources are not wasted apprehending, detaining, and deporting people whose only crime is not having their "papers." The executive branch can grant deferred action to a deportable immigrant in "the presence of sympathetic or compelling factors." Recently, applicants under the Violence Against Women Act were granted such protection. Similarly, the president can grant "Deferred Enforced Departure" (DED) to a group of foreign nationals if dangerous conditions in their country of origin demand such a concession. The executive branch can also apply "parole" (for those entering the U.S.) and "parole in place" (for those already here) for "urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."

The president has proved that he takes seriously concerns about securing the border and enforcing current immigration law to target dangerous undocumented immigrants. It is now time to show that he is willing to use the available executive levers in order to maintain a balanced and compassionate immigration policy in the absence of the broader reforms that are still badly needed. While it is up to the Congress to tackle genuine reform, the Obama administration has the space to interpret, prioritize and administer current laws to deter the deportation of young students who have known no other home and those who face grave threats to life and livelihood because of violence, extreme political turmoil, or natural disaster in their country of origin.

Faith in action:

"PLEASE SAVE US. We as in my fellow inmates find ourselves in the Torrance County Detention Facility and we are scared for our lives." These are the words of immigrants being held at a U.S. detention center, who face kidnapping, torture, and death at the hands of drug cartels that prey on the migrants who are deported to Mexican towns along the Texas and New Mexico border. Is this not an "urgent humanitarian reason" to defer deportation until these immigrants safety can be ensured?

No More Deaths, an advocacy group based in Tucson, urges action on behalf of detainees who fear deportation into Mexico along the Texas border. Please call (202) 282-8495 and leave a message for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: "Where deportation isn't safe, it isn't an option."

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