As the Trump administration steps up its enforcement of immigration law, officials work to reassure communities that the measures are not intended to produce mass deportations.
Over the weekend, media reports disclosed two new memos from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John F. Kelly. Unlike executive orders, the memos do not change law but indicate how strenuously the new administration plans to enforce laws that are already on the books. The guidance makes unauthorized immigrants who are convicted of any offense – from shoplifting to being in the country illegally – an enforcement priority. The memos also revive a law that allows the United States to return individuals caught crossing the Mexican border illegally back to Mexico, even if they are third-country nationals, and expand use of a deportation fast-track program. But so-called “Dreamers” – those who arrived as children and work or study and obey the law – will not be targeted.
By substantially broadening the scope of immigration enforcement compared to the Obama administration, Secretary Kelly’s guidance has fueled fears among immigrants and advocacy groups that all immigrants are being targeted and discriminated against. For the White House, however, the new guidance may be a fine balance: an effort to live up to President Trump’s campaign promises in some degree without running into more legal challenges.
Though Congress has passed extensive enforcement laws, it is up to each administration to decide how comprehensively it will enforce these laws, balancing concerns about security and open borders against the economic value unauthorized immigrants may bring. After 2013, when deportations hit a record high 434,000, the Obama administration changed its enforcement guidance in November 2014 to focus on “felons, not families.”
The DHS memos call for far wider-reaching enforcement than under any administration in recent history. This has prompted concerns from immigrant rights advocates that the policies are excessively punitive, potentially driving immigrants into the shadows and making essential local law enforcement more challenging.
“It is irresponsible to treat a hardened criminal the same as an immigrant mother with children for purposes of deportation,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey in a statement quoted by The Washington Post, saying the guidance could easily turn into racial profiling.
That concern was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has said it will fight the new policies in court.
For those who support restricted immigration, however, the guidance strikes a very different tone. They say it’s a long overdue effort to push back against law-breaking.
“The message is: The immigration law is back in business,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports restricted immigration, The New York Times reported. “That violating immigration law is no longer a secondary offense.”
Coming in the wake of a temporary halt on Trump’s temporary travel ban, working within existing laws possibly offers the administration a less contested route to fulfill its promise of a crackdown on immigration. The guidance is intended to support a pair of executive orders he issued last month.
But law enforcement officials attempted to reassure unauthorized immigrants that they would not be facing mass roundups or deportations. Besides questions about the feasibility of policies like sending third-country nationals back to Mexico – which still have to be worked out with the Mexican government – they said the federal government simply does not have the resources to prosecute every unauthorized immigrant for their immigration status alone.
“We do not have the personnel, time or resources to go into communities and round up people and do all kinds of mass throwing folks on buses,” a senior DHS official said on a conference call with reporters, looking to curb the “sense of panic” around the new guidance, The Washington Post reported.
Trump has called for the hiring of thousands more law enforcement agents, as well as the expansion of immigration jails, but Congress would have to approve any additional spending before these measures could be implemented.
Programs like President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offers unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children a path to work legally in the US, are not affected by the new guidance. Though the program was a target of Trump’s on the campaign trail, he said last week that he would “show great heart” in determining its fate.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.