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Immigration Policy Update: The Political Season

September 14, 2012 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

It’s the Political Season

On September 12, the House Judiciary Committee, Chaired by Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), held a hearing, “The Obama Administration’s Abuse of Power.” As one can infer from the title, the hearing served as an opportunity, just weeks before the election, for Republican members of the Committee’s majority to raise questions about a number of the administration’s policies they dislike.

The thrust of the hearing, to put it bluntly, was to express frustration that the President is using his executive authority to go around the obstructions of a do-nothing Congress. In fact, Representative Judy Chu (D-Calif.) expressed regret that the Committee was wasting its time rather than trying to tackle problems the country faces in the few remaining legislative days before the election.

Among the issues raised was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) referring to it as “de facto amnesty” and Steve King (R-Iowa) asserting the President was manufacturing immigration law “out of thin air.”

The sad thing about this hearing and others like them is that the members of Congress who arrange them actually think anyone is paying attention outside of the few lobbyists and advocates on both sides who attend the hearings. At this stage in the presidential race, people are looking to the candidates for clues as to where they stand on issues people care about. No one really cares if Elton Gallegly or Steve King is alarmed about President Obama’s deferred action policy.

Another problem with this hearing is that the President’s policies were being portrayed as contravening the will of Congress. “Congress” is not monolithic, however, and in fact the administration’s deferred action policy is very popular among many members of Congress, as it helps so many of their constituents. The popularity of the policy is the reason immigration hardliners in Congress are unable to stop it.

On the positive side, there won’t be many of these overtly political hearings, as Congress will be in session only a few more days before the election.

On September 11, a hearing (lacking in political shenanigans) was held by the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security titled, “Eleven Years Later: Preventing Terrorists from Coming to America.” Time in that hearing was taken almost entirely by several administration witnesses reporting on the progress of their agencies in preventing terrorists from entering the U.S. You can obtain the written testimony from the Homeland Security Committee’s Web site.

Appropriations Choices Postponed as Congress Considers Continuing Resolution

The House and Senate have agreed not to engage in a budget battle that might result in a government shutdown just weeks before the November election. Instead, Congress will pass a “continuing resolution” that will carry over Fiscal Year 2012 funding levels (with a small increase) into the first six months of Fiscal Year 2013. The current funding levels are set to expire at the end of the fiscal year on September 30, but this agreement would push that timeline back to March 2013.

This funding deal is not unusual, especially in an election year. It will enable members of Congress to leave town on schedule for their reelection campaigns, and it leaves Congress with one less battle to be faced in a lame duck session after the election, during which Congress must decide what to do about the extension of expiring tax cuts and whether to postpone pending across-the-board cuts in defense and other discretionary spending required by a budget deal passed in the summer of 2011 (but not taking effect until January of next year). You can view the House Appropriation Committee’s draft of the continuing resolution here.

National Immigrant Integration Conference

The 5th Annual National Immigrant Integration Conference begins next week in Baltimore. On the agenda are tracks on immigrant education, fostering economic success, citizenship, and on particular communities. The heart of the conference kicks off on September 23 with an address by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Plenary sessions cover topics ranging from successful citizenship models to the role of government in promoting integration.

To find out more and to register, see the Conference Web site.

Follow-up: The Decline of Russell Pearce and a Shift in Focus on Immigration

As we reported in our last policy update, the author of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, Russell Pearce, failed in his attempt to return to the Arizona Senate after he was removed from office in a recall election. The Arizona Republic reported on September 9 that Mr. Pearce was out of step with a growing number of Republicans in the state who favor a more sensible approach to immigration, “one that includes a guest-worker program and letting undocumented immigrants gain legal status.” Among other reasons, Republicans have faced pressure from business leaders who are concerned that the state’s hard line on immigration has damaged Arizona’s reputation and hurt its economy. Bob Worsley, the Republican candidate who defeated Pearce in the Republican primary election, said the new approach "is a significant shift away from what looks like a hard-hearted, harsh-enforcement police state versus being sensitive to a multicultural population that we have with some compassion and keeping families together.”

These sorts of conversations are happening all over the United States, as reasonable voices are raised against the narrow focus on harsh enforcement. On October 12, leaders from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin will gather for a “Midwest Summit” in Indianapolis focusing on what immigrants and immigration means to the economies and communities of the Midwest. There have been similar gatherings of business, faith, and law enforcement leaders who have come together to discuss forging a new consensus on immigrants and America. Summits have been held to date in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Atlanta, Georgia. You can read more about these events on the Web site of Forging a New Consensus.

Border Patrol Agents Fire on Crowd on Mexican Side, Killing One

The latest in a series of fatal shooting of Mexicans by U.S. Border Patrol agents occurred on September 3 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. According to the agents, they were patrolling by boat, attempting to stop a swimmer in the Rio Grande, when they were attacked by rock throwers on the Mexican side of the border. However, as reported by the San Antonio Express-News, witnesses said that the agents were being heckled from the Mexican side by a group that believed the agents’ boat would drown the swimmer. The shooting was unprovoked, according to the witnesses.

The excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents was the recent subject of a documentary series that aired on the PBS series, “Need to Know.” The documentary raises questions about accountability within the Border Patrol. This latest shooting will raise more questions.

Enforcement Statistics Released

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics released it summary of Fiscal Year 2011 immigration enforcement statistics. The report includes enforcement actions at the border and in the interior of the U.S. Here are a few highlights:

  • Last year, the Border Patrol apprehended 340,000 individuals. This is the lowest number since 1971, and a strong indication that fewer people are trying to cross the border illegally.

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained a record 429,000 individuals in its detention system last year, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year.

  • There were a total of 392,000 removals, up from 385,000 the year before. The number of returns (generally, of persons apprehended at the border and not put through formal removal proceedings) was at its lowest since 1970—323,500. The number of removals exceeded returns for the first time since 1941 (according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics). This is partly due to the fact that there were fewer people apprehended at the border, so fewer to return. (Persons who are formally removed face future immigration consequences, such as bars to re-entry for a period of time, while persons who are retuned may come legally to the U.S. without penalty.)

The latest enforcement statistics add to the difficulties of politicians who like to claim that the Obama administration is not interested in immigration enforcement. These politicians just don’t have the data to back up their assertions. You can obtain the enforcement statistics here.

Operation Streamline Paper Released

The story on immigration enforcement statistics, above, notes there were fewer returns in 2011 than in any year since 1970. As mentioned, part of the reason is due to the decline in apprehensions at the border. Another reason is that many persons who are apprehended while crossing the border illegally are arrested and placed into the criminal justice system in a program paradoxically called “Operation Streamline.” In this program, persons crossing the border are not returned immediately. Instead, they are put into criminal proceedings before a federal judge, sentenced, and incarcerated for several months. Only after all that are they deported. The program has greatly increased the cost for handling persons who cross the border illegally. It has also added tremendously to the caseload of prosecutors and federal judges on the border, and has resulted in a decline in prosecutions of more serious crimes. You can learn more about this wasteful program in a new paper released by the National Immigration Forum, which you can download from our publications page.

The Forum’s paper on Operation Streamline is one of several reports issued this week examining how immigrants are routed into and treated within the criminal justice system. Grassroots Leadership issued a paper focusing on the role of private prisons in Operation Streamline, the ACLU of Texas released an abstract of a forthcoming report on prisons that hold incarcerated non-citizens, and Justice Strategies published a report on privately operated federal prisons for immigrants.

Follow-up: Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization

Another issue Congress will leave until after the election is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization. As we have previously reported, both the House and the Senate passed different version of the VAWA reauthorization this past spring. The House version would weaken protections now in current law for immigrant victims of domestic violence. House and Senate leaders have so far failed to reconcile their differing versions of the bill.

On September 12, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (Republican) and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (Democrat) published an Op Ed in Politico urging Congress to move forward with the bill without the provisions harmful to immigrants. You can read their Op Ed by clicking on this link.

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