White House Cornered by Its Own Immigration Enforcement Record

In the middle of a debt-ceiling debate that’s highlighting so much of what’s wrong with U.S. institutions of governance, President Barack Obama is clumsily defending his immigration enforcement actions and calling the system flawed at the same time. Somebody in the White House needs to realize that his call to ensure that such enforcement is humane is irrelevant. Obama’s Republican opposition — lawmakers and presidential hopefuls — won’t give one inch in their pursuit for an enforcement-only immigration strategy.

During Obama’s latest address on immigration he repeated the same talking points about the history of the United States as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. In doing so, he seems eagerly trying to position himself at the political center of a non-existent debate. This is part of what he told the National Council of La Raza last Monday:

I promise you, we are responding to your concerns and working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way.

Obama followed that by saying he couldn’t change the law on his own, but a group of undocumented young people in the crowd responded with a loud “Yes you can!” that echoed the 2008 campaign slogan. Advocates have urged Obama to change his interpretation of current law and issue an executive order that would stop the deportation of young people and parents of U.S. citizens.

Felipe Matos of Presente.org talks to reporters after leading Dreamers in chanting during Obama's speech.

Felipe Matos of Presente.org talks to reporters after leading Dreamers in chanting during Obama’s speech.

Obama’s passive acceptance of solutions prescribed by the Department of Homeland Security — particularly Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton — has led to an increase in deportations. The deportation rate is rising in part thanks to programs like Secure Communities, which enables law enforcement authorities to share a fingerprint database with immigration authorities, and Operation Streamline, which makes it easier to convict and deport people apprehended at the border.

Obama’s critics have taken a direct and succinct tone. From Frank Sharry at America’s Voice:

You are the president; you can steer your administration’s policies and practices so that they line up with your values and priorities, yet your administration is deporting more immigrants than ever. With Republican hardliners controlling the House, chances for a much-needed legislative breakthrough are slim, but you have plenty of authority, Mr. President. You have the authority to protect young people eligible for the DREAM Act, you have the authority to overhaul rather than expand deeply flawed enforcement programs such as Secure Communities and 287(g), and you have the authority to make it easier for families to stay together rather than get ripped apart. In other words, Mr. President, “Yes you can!”

The immigrant rights movement, and the hundreds of individuals and organizations seeking to increase the political power of Latinos and other U.S. ethnic groups have had to balance the short- and long- term prospects of criticizing Obama. In this case, advocating against Obama is a double-edged sword. Call off the pressure, and become irrelevant during the 2012 debate. Endanger his re-election, and we’ll wind up with someone worse on immigration in the White House.

I believe Obama is tone-deaf to a moral message. He’s offering a political one in return. In doing so, he’s out of touch with the impact his own policies have.