Democrats run the risk of hurting their election prospects and discouraging Latino voter turnout in November unless the White House can better implement its policy to deport only illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds, some Democrats and pro-immigration groups believe.
“I think that there are a large number of voters, both immigrant and Latino voters, that when they first think of the president, they don’t think of additional Pell Grants, or expansion of health care, or revamping of Wall Street, or a fairer tax [system]. They think of someone they knew, either personally or related to them, or a neighbor or friend, who has been deported. And that is what first and foremost comes to mind,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said last week.
Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said the failure to properly implement the policy has wreaked havoc on the Latino community and — along with a weak economy and the unmet expectation of immigration reform — could discourage them to turn out to vote for Democrats.
“For low-propensity voters, it doesn’t take much to keep them at home rather than get them turned out,” Sharry said, adding that it is too early to tell whether the issue will affect Latino voter turnout.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has championed a Latino community priority — the DREAM Act — in the Senate, agreed that the disconnect between the White House and Immigration and Customs Enforcement could hurt Democrats in the fall, but he defended the president.
“It may,” Durbin said. “We can’t let it happen, because there is no question that this president and this administration have worked harder to pass the DREAM Act, to move forward on immigration than any other administration. I know [Latinos] are discouraged, and they should be; the system is disappointing and heartbreaking on many days, but we just have to keep working on it.”
Part of the frustration among Hispanic activists is the fact that some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and who consider themselves Americans are getting caught up in ICE’s deportations. Those children in some cases would benefit from the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrant children who go to college or join the military.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated in a recent interview on Univision’s Al Punto that he, too, wants the White House to do a better job of implementing the policy.
“We’ve done some extremely good things, especially as it relates to the ‘dreamers’ to make sure they are not taken away in the middle of the night,” Reid said. “There’s a lot more that can be done. There’s more the president is going to do administratively, and that should happen fairly quickly.”
Durbin and Gutierrez have been among the leading voices in Congress on immigration issues and the “go-to” offices to help kids facing deportation. Both have pushed the DREAM Act, which passed the House in 2010, but came up short in the Senate.
Durbin said that he is “in frequent contact” with the White House as they seek to better implement the roughly year-old policy giving prosecutorial discretion to ICE and to Customs and Border Protection agents.
The idea was to target illegal immigrants with criminal records rather than going after people who are not considered threats to their communities or the nation.
With immigration legislation unlikely to pass the divided Congress, the policy was also developed to help kids eligible for the DREAM Act. It came in response to a letter from 22 Senators, including Durbin.
A senior administration official said the policy is meant not for political gain but because Obama believes it’s the right thing to do in the absence of Congressional action.
In a speech last week, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Celia Munoz said, “The simple fact is that Republicans, including those who believe in this issue, have abandoned immigration reform and the DREAM Act. And until they find a way back to the conversation, immigration reform will remain stalled.”
But deportations of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants have continued, immigration groups and Democrats have said.
“When it was first announced, many of us were really pleased and thought this would be an enlightened approach to the very difficult issue of immigration enforcement,” Sharry said. “A year later, many of us are extremely disappointed with the implementation of this policy.”
Nearly 400,000 individuals were removed from the country in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, according to ICE. That is the largest number in the agency’s history.
Gutierrez said he was in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday on behalf of Gabino Sanchez, who is facing deportation because local police have repeatedly issued him tickets for driving without a license during the past decade or so.
“Fourteen years old when he came here, two American citizen children, no criminal record, but they don’t use discretion,” Gutierrez said. “It seems like they are walking away from the letter and the spirit” of the policy.
There have also been charges from immigrant rights groups that ICE has even abused illegal immigrants.
At a hearing last October, Durbin asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about “troubling reports that there are ICE and CBP field offices that have announced that that these new deportation priorities do not apply to them.”
Napolitano said, “If there are some, I would like to know about it. I have personally ... spoken with the heads of the ICE [Enforcement and Removal Operations] across the country and the heads of the [ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor] across the country, which are the regional counsel; my understanding is that they are very excited about having priorities, that the priorities are the right ones.”
Asked last week why the policy was not properly being carried out, Durbin said local ICE and CBP employees might oppose the president’s position.
“Even when the president puts out a directive to the immigration authorities saying ‘Don’t deport those people who are no threat to us, particularly don’t deport those eligible for the DREAM Act,’ it still happens,” Durbin said. “It reflects a bureaucratic mess and many times local employees that ignore the president’s order.
“They have their own personal points of view, and they may be different from the president’s,” Durbin said.
Sharry suggested that the problem lies with the leadership at DHS, which may be afraid of taking on law enforcement and the National ICE Council, the union that represents the agency’s roughly 7,000 immigration officers.
“I think it is because of the culture at ICE and the leadership at DHS,” Sharry said.
At a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing last October, ICE union President Chris Crane said the prosecutorial discretion policy “cannot be effectively applied in the field and has the potential to completely overwhelm ICE’s limited manpower resources or result in the indiscriminate and large scale release of aliens encountered in all ICE law enforcement operations.”
But if the problem isn’t solved soon, Sharry said, it could end up benefiting presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“The question is not are they going to vote for Romney, the question is are they going to turn out to vote,” Sharry said.