The US notched a record number of deportations of illegal immigrants in 2010, according to an analysis of government statistics, with the spike driven primarily by increased deportations of people stopped for drunken driving and other traffic violations.
Drunken driving incidents involving illegal immigrants are known to inflame public anger over border security, and the Obama administration's deportation crackdown could be seen as a practical, and potentially popular, response to a public safety issue.
But news of the traffic-related deportations also highlights a political problem for the administration. It risks loss of Hispanics' support for Democrats, even as it seems to do little to persuade those on the right, who insist that President Obama is bent on letting most illegal immigrants off the hook in anticipation of a national amnesty program, that the administration is serious about immigration enforcement.
"This is the strange world of immigration policy that we're in right now, where everyone is building their own narrative of how these things fit together," says Noah Pickus, co-director of the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, in Durham, N.C. "For some, the idea that the Obama administration is taking a traffic violation, and driving immigration policy through that, is too much. On the other hand, the notion that we should use a lot more discretion and focus more on [immigrant] criminals is precisely what's too little for others."
Some 393,000 people were deported in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, about half of whom had committed crimes, according to an Associated Press analysis. The report, citing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data, stated that 27,635 people were deported after receiving drunken driving citations, compared with 10,851 in the last full year of the Bush administration. In addition, 13,028 people were deported for less serious traffic violations, three times the 4,527 who were deported two years earlier.
For some, especially in Democratic-leaning states including New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois, the report confirms concerns that Obama has not adhered to his promise of targeting only the "worst of the worst" for deportation. Several states are brawling with the administration over the Secure Communities program, announcing they are pulling out of it. Secure Communities uses a federal immigration database to help local police identify illegal immigrants among people charged with local crimes and misdemeanors.
Meanwhile, those who want tougher immigration enforcement point to recent ICE changes around prosecutorial discretion as evidence that the Obama administration does not intend to enforce the law aggressively.
They cite a June memo from ICE director John Morton that detailed different classes of illegal immigrants that ICE personnel should consider "sensitive" when deciding whether to prosecute for deportation. It included minors and the elderly, pregnant women, college graduates, and those who have been living in America for a long time.
In response, Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas filed legislation that would curtail the administration's use of broad classifications to guide prosecutorial discretion. Representative Smith particularly pointed to a decrease in workplace immigration raids since the Bush years as an example of the Obama administration's reduced focus on broad-based immigration enforcement.
"The administration … knows the political reality that the vast majority of Americans want them to enforce the law, so they have to do the best not to enforce the law and yet convince the American people that they actually are," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates stricter immigration laws.
Advocates for illegal immigrants say the facts – including this most recent deportation analysis – counter that argument.
Congressman Smith "forgets that President Obama deports more people – about 1,100 per day – than the last president or any president in modern history,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois told Congress Thursday in Washington. “He also forgets that we are seeing historically low levels of illegal immigration; that communities along the US-Mexico border are the most crime-free communities in our nation; and that immigration from Mexico is the lowest it has been in six decades."
Nevertheless, the contradiction between the president's "worst of the worst" promise and the fact that some immigrants have been ousted for minor traffic infractions is notable enough that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pushed back at the Associated Press analysis of ICE statistics.
"The more serious offenders are still in prison," Secretary Napolitano told the AP on Thursday. "We're not going to see them reflected in the numbers until we can begin to remove them" after they undergo trial and serve their sentences.
Moreover, the growth in deportations linked to traffic violations is less a result of vigilance by the Department of Homeland Security than of local jurisdictions, which in increasing numbers are handing over illegal immigrants to federal authorities for prosecution, say immigration policy experts.
"There are bills across the states that are named after someone killed in an accident by someone who is here illegally, and there's enormous, up-close, personal, and hostile reactions to that, because the reaction is that if we [had] enforced our laws this never would have happened," says Mr. Pickus at Duke University.
At the same time, he adds, the emerging patchwork of state and local laws on illegal immigration is not helping to build the political trust that will be needed to build a "grand bargain" for federal immigration reform.