By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Joseph I. Elias
President Obama spoke out several times over the past two weeks about immigration reform. Most recently while in Miami, on April 29, he renewed his call for immigration action. The President urged for the passage of the Dream Act. President Obama said, “I will keep fighting alongside many of you to make the Dream Act the law of the land.” In a call for bipartisan support for the Dream Act, the President said, “We should all be able to agree it makes no sense to expel talented young people from our country.” The Dream Act provides a path for legalization of undocumented children brought into the United States when they were young. The path would allow for lawful resident status, and ultimately citizenship, for those children who serve in the military, or attend college, or perform a significant amount of community service.
Immigration reform of any type that would provide for lawful status for the undocumented faces stiff opposition from the Republican controlled House and anti-immigration groups. Opponents of the Dream Act believe it rewards illegal behavior of the parents of the students. Also anti-immigration reformers prefer to see increased immigration enforcement. These groups were able to pass immigration legislation on a state-level most notably in Arizona. The state of Georgia recently passed a bill similar to the one passed by Arizona last year in attempts to crack down on illegal immigration.
President Obama criticized the new Georgia bill on April 27 stating that it was a mistake for states to try and pass immigration laws piecemeal. The President noted that his administration has done more on enforcement than any previous administration. This includes conducting more border patrols and engaging in serious crackdowns on employers hiring undocumented workers.
In fact, the administration’s enforcement actions have been severely criticized by states, especially California. California lawmakers recently voted to advance a bill that would only let local communities participate in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E) Secure Communities Program if they chose to do so through resolution. The Secure Communities Program links up the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (F.B.I) criminal database with immigration service records so that every time someone is arrested, his or her immigration status is automatically checked. California alone accounts for more than a third of the deportations initiated by the I.C.E program in the United States. The California legislature and state law enforcement officials criticize the I.C.E program for sweeping up crime victims and witnesses who are arrested during an investigation. This creates a chilling effect in which victims and witnesses refuse to come forward to aide law enforcement in their investigations and prosecutions for fear of deportation. In figures released by I.C.E, about 29% of the 102,000 immigrants deported under the program since it began in 2008 had no criminal conviction.
Immigration officials, when promoting the program with State governments, stated that the goal of the program was to ensure illegal immigrants who commit crimes are flagged and deported. While it sounds reasonable to remove dangerous criminals and threats to society, I.C.E's own statistics show that nationwide only 26% of those deported have been convicted of major drug offenses or violent crimes. California's representative Zoe Lofgren has asked I.C.E's Inspector General to investigate the statements made by Homeland Security and I.C.E officials about the program. This is because she believes some of the statements made by them were intentionally false and misleading.
The issue of immigration is so thorny and complex that the President and his administration are being pulled in opposite directions. He is being forced to appease anti-immigration reformers by stepping up enforcement. And, at the same time, he is pushing for ameliorative reforms. Both are deluging him in a barrage of criticism. Nevertheless, President Obama said he had not given up. In his recent push to make the Dream Act the law of the land he stated, “It will be difficult and it will take time. I know that some of you wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that is not how democracy works.”
An overhaul of immigration law and policy is undoubtedly a difficult task. The will to change it for the better is there with the President which is key to accomplishing any difficult undertaking. We trust that Congress will recognize that immigration reform is not solely about enforcement, but, includes an understanding of the important positive contributions both documented and undocumented immigrants make for our society. The nation has experienced what happens when the President places something at the top of his agenda with the recent capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Bringing Bin Laden to justice is already uniting the country. It is this type of unity that can overhaul a broken immigration system.