Why Obama’s Deportation Announcement Is Not Enough

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The new program for prioritizing deportations announced by Homeland Security on August 18 was welcome news. I have heard colleagues deprecate it as “window dressing” and politically motivated, but I think they miss the point.

Of course the announcement was politically motivated. The president was getting a lot of heat from governors who were unhappy with the Secure Communities program. As the immigrant community pushed big-state governors to pull out, some, like Andrew Cuomo, made the leap. The lack of a strong anti-immigrant backlash in recusant states like New York, Illinois and Massachusetts made it clear that other governors could take their states out of Secure Communities without suffering politically.

That’s why Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to tear up existing Secure Communities agreements and impose the program on the states without any agreement at all. The outcry against this move was immediate and loud.

On the Monday before the deportation prioritization announcement, there was a rally against the program outside Obama’s reelection headquarters in Chicago. This sent a clear message of the political cost that would be incurred if the president dug in his heels against one of his most solid constituencies. The following day, protests took place in cities across the country. By Wednesday, the White House felt so much pressure that their top Latina staffer, Cecilia Muñoz, authored a blog on the White House website claiming that immigrant groups had distorted the president’s record on the issue. This only heightened the outcry from Latino and immigrant groups.

When the Thursday announcement of reprioritization came, it essentially ended the White House’s feeble efforts to strike a Grand Bargain on immigration reform with the Republicans. Obama finally accepted what we knew to be true since the middle of last year: There is no willingness to compromise on this issue by the GOP. And there is considerable political risk for Obama, who could be viewed as having done nothing to improve the lives of immigrants.

The new deportation prioritization program is in its earliest stage and no one knows how it will be implemented. If it is done so fairly, here is what we are likely to see:

1. Tens of thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation taken off the deportation conveyor belt and given permission to remain temporarily in the United States with work authorization.

2. A de-incentivizing of local police efforts to racially profile immigrants, arrest them on flimsy charges, and turn them over to immigration officials. If these cases are “low-priority,” then local cops will quickly tire of arresting people only to have immigration agents ignore them.

In this case, there would be real legal gains for a substantial number of immigrants based on our political action. So is this move political? Yes—and that’s a good thing.

While this is a substantial victory, it is not enough, and it should not stop agitation for an end to Secure Communities. S-Comm will continue to erode trust between police and community members by tying police work to immigration enforcement, and nothing in the August 18 announcement changes that.  We should also remember that if the announcement was generated by the pressure we put on the administration, then more pressure could win direct modification of the S-Comm program itself.


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