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Obama’s Reasons for Downplaying Tough Immigration Enforcement

The crux of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration law is that state law enforcement shouldn’t do the job of the feds in cracking down on illegal immigration. But some Immigration and Customs Enforcement programs already blur the line between state and local authorities. Over at Salon, Daniel Denvir looks into ICE’s Secure Communities program, which critics say forces local law enforcement to take up immigration enforcement — whether they want to or not.

It’s worth reading the whole piece, but I’ll break down some of the key points. The program implements information sharing between federal and local authorities, asking local police to enter fingerprints of suspects into a program so they can be checked by immigration agents. The information can then be used for deportations — even if the suspects are cleared of the crimes that led to their arrest. ICE plans to implement the program nationwide by 2013, but it’s already in operation in 437 jurisdictions and 24 states. It’s not clear whether cities are able to opt out — Denvir gets conflicting answers — despite complaints from city officials and law enforcement that it could harm their ability to fight other crime.

The problem with the program, according to critics, is that it targets all illegal immigrants equally. The DHS has been touting a new push to prioritize illegal immigrants who are also dangerous criminals and employers who hire undocumented workers. But the Secure Communities program skews that balance: In its first year, more than 88 percent of those deported under the program were arrested for the least serious classes of offenses.

Critics claim that Secure Communities allows deportations to stay in the dark, enabling the Obama administration to stay away from politically damaging stories of families being separated. But there are also political problems with playing down heavy enforcement, as Edward Schumacher-Matos of The Washington Post argued yesterday. Images of enforcement victories may not be palatable for Democratic leadership, but the dearth of them makes people worry the administration doesn’t care about enforcement:

A big part of leadership is showmanship, and President Obama legitimately has something to show. But I have asked administration officials why they don’t and, after much squirming, it comes down to the human face of those who are being punished. Those being jailed and deported are mostly honest, well-meaning people, many of them poor, who sneaked across the border or overstayed their visas because they wanted to work. Some have children, adding to the drama.

Such images don’t sit well with administration officials personally or politically, many of them having previously worked on immigration issues. The images raise the hackles of the religious groups, immigrant activists, and Latino and other ethnic groups that are part of Obama’s base.

And so the administration politically muddles. It somehow hopes to persuade the American public to support a total overhaul of the immigration system by proving that the government can be trusted to enforce the law, but without campaigning on its enforcement effectiveness so as not to offend the president’s base constituencies. It blames Republicans for the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. For good measure, it blames Republicans for the plight of the poor immigrants, even though it is Democrats who are carrying out the enforcement.

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