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Obama's Deportation Limbo

President Obama speaks about immigration reform in El Paso, Texas on May 10, 2011

Among the many issues where the Obama administration is walking a fine line that pleases exactly no one, immigration tops the list.

Back in August, the administration announced a new deportation policy where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would review pending deportation cases on a case-by-case basis and differentiate between “high-priority” ones and “low-priority” ones. Those considered low-priority will be closed, although not dismissed.

High-priority cases include those of immigrants that have committed crimes or repeated immigration violations. Low-priority are those individuals who have been in the U.S. since childhood, have immediate relatives of someone who served in the military, or are pursuing a U.S. education.

Although the advocacy community welcomed the policy as a positive step forward, the distinction between high and low priority cases remain muddled and people who have committed only minor violations might very well find themselves in the deportation line. Worse, the policy does not address the vast majority of immigrants who do not have access to a legal status but are not under a deportation procedure, leaving those who might benefit from this policy in an unstable legal situation. They can stay in the country but they cannot obtain a legal status, thrusting people into legal limbo where their cases could be reopened.

Predictably, this policy has faced hostility from Republicans who have called it outright amnesty. Republican opposition culminated in a November subpoena, voted on a strict party line (7-4), against DHS to obtain the records of those immigrants who have been identified or benefited from prosecutorial discretion. House Judiciary chairman Lamar Smith argued that the subpoena was necessary because the Obama administration had not responded quickly enough for a request of information made in August.

What's gone unnoticed, however, is how politicized this decision has become within DHS itself. Christopher Crane, head of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, not only testified in front of the Judiciary Committee to oppose the policy but has also appeared on Fox News and Lou Dobbs' radio show to characterize it as backdoor amnesty that prevents agents and prosecutors from enforcing the law. The resistance within ICE to implement this law has required ICE’s top authorities to travel the country and hold a number of meetings with officers to convince them that this new policy actually gives them more capacity to enforce the law rather than take it away. 

What all these controversies portray, however, are the limits of any measure taken in the immigration field, in the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform, that clearly address the situation of the close to 11 million immigrants currently in the country. Without such reform, any measure taken by the Obama administration will only bring controversy, and local and state governments or Congress will continue to implement new immigration legislation that promises even more confusion for would-be American citizens than already exists.