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How the Politics of Immigration is Driving Mass Deportation

Ian Haney López

Deportations reached another record high last year. This is a striking development in light of the fact that illegal immigration and Border Patrol apprehensions have been falling for over a decade, and when — despite intransigence among some House Republicans — for several years there has been broad support for a fundamental restructuring of deportation policies.

In June, President Obama promised to move forward, alone if necessary, by the end of the summer. Rather than doing so, however, he recently announced more delay. Mass deportation seems to be the Democratic response to right-wing dog whistling around Latino immigrants.

Number of deportations from the US

Since 2005 deportations have been rising precipitously (see chart), with removals under Obama consistently exceeding those under George W. Bush. The total number of deportations under the Obama administration now exceeds 2 million persons — this is, truly, “mass deportation,” by far the highest sustained rate of removals this country has ever seen.

Mass deportation might suggest surging numbers of persons crossing the border illegally, an impression no doubt strengthened by this summer’s arrival of women and children fleeing violence in Central America. However, as numbers from Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project show, “the rate of undocumented emigration is nearing zero. It peaked at about 55 of every 1,000 Mexican men in 1999; by 2010 it had fallen to 9 per 1,000, a rate not seen since the 1960s.”

This dramatic fall-off in the numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the country is corroborated by the government’s statistics on Border Patrol apprehensions. From roughly 1.6 million arrests a year at the start of the new millennium, they’ve now fallen to about one-quarter that level. Indeed, last year the Obama administration deported almost 18,000 more persons than the Border Patrol detained.

It’s not immigration itself driving mass deportation; rather, it’s the politics of immigration. But this isn’t a simple Democrat/GOP split, for there are many Republicans who support immigration reform, from George Bush to John McCain, and major conservative idea-shapers do so as well, from David Brooks to Rupert Murdoch. Witness the comprehensive immigration reform bill the Senate passedwith bipartisan support in the summer of 2013.

Rather, as research by political scientist Christopher Parker shows, there’s a split on the right, with those associated with the tea party significantly more likely than other conservatives to take a hard line on immigration. Summarizing his research, Parker found that while half of non-tea party conservatives support the DREAM Act, creating a limited path to citizenship for stellar young immigrants, less than a third of those who identify with the tea party do so. Conversely, less than half of non-tea party conservatives support changing our constitutional citizenship law, in which someone born here is automatically a US citizen; in contrast, two-thirds of tea party-identified conservatives support upending the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship. Most telling of all, Parker reports, fully four out of five conservatives who identified with the tea party reported being either anxious or fearful of “illegal immigrants.”

The GOP base is composed in significant part by an element that is racially fearful, and those House Republicans who most closely ally themselves with a tea party identity seem disposed to appeal to this faction by opposing immigration reform. But if racial pandering by some GOP House members helps explain why no immigration reform will come from Congress, what is holding Obama back from acting unilaterally?

In June, making the case for acting expeditiously, Obama catalogued the harms of continued conservative obstructionism:

It’s meant more businesses free to game the system by hiring undocumented workers, which punishes businesses that play by the rules, and drives down wages for hardworking Americans. It’s meant lost talent when the best and brightest from around the world come to study here but are forced to leave and then compete against our businesses and our workers. It’s meant no chance for 11 million immigrants to come out of the shadows and earn their citizenship if they pay a penalty and pass a background check, pay their fair share of taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line. It’s meant the heartbreak of separated families.

With these costs in mind, Obama stressed the urgency of reform, and promised that by the end of summer his administration would act on its own, if need be, “to do what Congress refuses to do and fix as much of our immigration system as we can. If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.”

But it turns out that the job will have to wait some more, because, Obama explained earlier this month, “I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.”

Not to disparage the importance of ducks, but administration insiders made clear there was another reason for the delay: the calculation that acting unilaterally on immigration might further imperil the ability of Democrats to hold onto the Senate in November. The New York Times editorial board distilled Obama’s ulterior motive: “The real reason, Mr. Obama’s aides have acknowledged, is that the midterm elections are upon us, and Mr. Obama believes the issue is politically too hot. He listened to political operatives who didn’t want to jeopardize Democratic control of the Senate.”

The electoral calculus is pretty clear, and was laid out in early August by Brendan Nyhan in The New York Times and Aaron Blake in The Washington Post: In the states with the most hotly contested Senate races, Latino voters are few and unlikely to sway the election, whereas unilateral immigration reform could substantially drive up GOP voter turnout in those critical races.

This sort of cold strategizing invites responses couched in similar terms. For instance, two political scientists with deep knowledge of the Hispanic community, Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, stress the potential of even small numbers of Latino voters to swing tightly contested races. And they emphasize the power of immigration reform to motivate, or demobilize, Latino voters: in a summertime poll, 87 percent of Latinos said that administration-led immigration reform would make them more enthusiastic about voting for Democrats in the 2014 midterms; whereas 57 percent said a failure to act would make them less enthusiastic.

The hard reality of winning or losing elections demands attention to these sorts of gimlet-eyed calculations. But we also lose something important when we think about mass deportation simply as an electoral strategy. By one estimate, Obama’s decision to again delay reform will result in the deportation of another 60,000 persons. Not all would have qualified to stay under any reform he might have promulgated, but its reasonable to assume tens of thousands might have. Moreover, the background anxiety caused by the ever-present threat of removal will continue to dangle like a sword over millions.

In June, Obama recognized that continued mass deportation has “meant the heartbreak of separated families.” Dog whistling on the right is responsible for much of this heartbreak. But fault also lies with the Obama administration’s repeated decisions to defer and delay acting unilaterally, for the last six years, and now for a few more months, at least.

This post originally appeared on Bill Moyers' blog.