Deportations of illegal immigrants in 2012 reach new US record

The Obama administration deported at least 400,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2012, a new record. It emphasizes deporting 'criminal aliens' to protect public safety, but the high figure serves to remind Latinos of the president's unfilled pledge to reform immigration policy.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
A marker in the road at the San Ysidro border crossing shows the line between the US and Mexico. Deportations have been up in 2012, with more than 400,000 people removed from the United States.

The United States deported more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, the most of any year in the nation’s history, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports.

The record number, released Friday, is also important for another reason: It is a stinging reminder to Latinos that President Obama failed during his first term to pursue the comprehensive immigration reform that they seek.

The Obama administration framed its 2012 work in immigration enforcement as focused mainly on criminals – 55 percent of deportations came from convicted criminals, a record high – rather than on indiscriminately rounding up illegal immigrants and sending them home. ICE on Friday also issued new detention guidelines intended to emphasize legal action against those who have committed crimes above and beyond immigration violations.

“While the [fiscal year] 2012 removals indicate that we continue to make progress in focusing resources on criminal and priority aliens, we are constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety,” ICE Director John Morton said in a statement. 

In four years, the Obama administration has deported three-quarters of the number of people that President George W. Bush’s administration did in eight. And unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama made no concerted effort to reform the US immigration system – a history that’s not lost on the president’s Latino supporters.

"This is nothing to be proud of,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a leading lawmaker on immigration reform for a decade, in a statement on the deportation statistics.

While Representative Gutierrez lauded the crackdown on criminals as necessary, he said some 90,000 undocumented parents of American-born children continue to be deported each year.

“We must also realize that among these hundreds of thousands of deportations are parents and breadwinners and heads of American families that are assets to American communities and have committed no crimes,” the Gutierrez statement said. "Solving this problem in a humane and sensible way requires Congress to act on immigration reform and do what we have been unable to do for 25 or 30 years.”

The closest the Obama administration came to reshaping immigration policy was the summer 2012 implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, whereby some young unauthorized immigrants could gain a two-year deferral of deportation and access to work permits and driver's licenses.

Some 355,000 people have applied under the program, and just over 100,000 have been approved through mid-December, according to the latest data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services. As many as 1.7 million undocumented immigrants could be eligible for the program over time, experts say.

While immigration advocates cheered the president's DACA order, they also remember his unfulfilled promise at the start of his term in 2009 to take on immigration reform, as well as the record number of deportations under his watch.

“The credibility of the president is on the line,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “The president has to lead. The president has to show Republicans and Democrats that he’s serious about this and that he’s not just going to use it as a political lightning rod.”

Obama has promised to tackle immigration reform early in 2013, and congressional discussions about potential legislation are under way between lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate.

If Obama doesn’t, Republicans will be eager to point out that Democrats once again broke their promises to some of the left’s key voting blocs.

“I just want to remind all of you, though, that the Democrats had two years to do something about immigration reform,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho after a vote on a GOP-led bill that would kill the diversity visa lottery in favor of more visas for highly educated immigrants in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“They had a White House. They had the House. They had the Senate. And they did nothing about immigration reform,” he said.

And that could make Latino and Asian voters, who sided overwhelmingly with Democrats in the 2012 election, susceptible to Republican overtures in the future. 

“Everybody talks about the incredible turnout of the new American vote in 2012, but Latinos, Asians, and other voters are not die-hard Democrats,” Mr. Noorani says. “There’s a lot of space there for Republicans to step into.”

Until Obama and reform-minded members of Congress make good on their vows that 2013 will yield a comprehensive fix to America’s immigration system, however, Latino, Asian, and other pro-immigration forces will continue to feel uneasy about the high level of deportations under a Democratic president.

“We are the one country,” Gutierrez told the Monitor in a prior interview, “that orphans children who have parents.”

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