Aggressive Immigration Enforcement May Not Lead to Reform

July 30, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Even as the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the United States plunges and the Obama administration steps up enforcement of the immigration laws, comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a path to legalization for some undocumented immigrants already living here is in peril.

As University of California-Davis law professor Kevin Johnson writes in a post on Concurring Opinions, despite President Obama’s longstanding support for reform before he became president, the issue has been eclipsed in this administration by the troubled economy and health care reform, which now dominate the legislative agenda. Putting immigration reform off until next next year, though, could destroy its chances, though, because as Johnson notes, “next year is an election year in Congress” and “Enacting legislation on a contentious issue that touches on volatile issues of race and class, seems unlikely in an election year” — particularly during an economic recession.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration hasn’t waited to step up immigration enforcement, expanding controversial programs like the 287(g) program that allows local police to enforce federal immigration laws and may lead to racial profiling, and expansion of the “Secure Communities” program, which sends the fingerprints of suspects booked at local jails to the federal immigration authorities to check immigration status. The results of this stepped-up enforcement has been, as one recent study found, a dramatic increase in immigration prosecutions.

As a recent Justice Department proposed budget makes clear, Secure Communities is expected to lead to the deportation of “tens of thousands more” immigrants next year.

The political calculus appears to be, writes Johnson, that “the administration will gain the public trust on enforcement and then be in a better position to seek immigration reform that benefits immigrants.” But he warns that the same strategy backfired on President Bush when he failed to pass immigration reform despite aggressive workplace raids and record deportations.

The Obama administration now runs the same risk.

“As it fashions and implements more and more immigration enforcement measures, it may never be able to push balanced immigration reform through Congress.  And delay is dangerous because there is always some reason to put off a national debate on a controversial issue.”