By Stephen Dinan
WASHINGTON D.C. -The same week the White House was assuring Republicans they could trust him to enforce immigration laws, the Obama administration quietly announced that it was reinterpreting the rules for refugees and asylum seekers so applicants could be approved even if they had given “limited” material support for terrorism.
It was the latest blow to the chances for immigration reform, which now hang on the very question of whether Republicans can trust President Obama to enforce the laws.
“Yet again, this administration is abusing the powers granted it by Congress,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said after he had a chance to digest the changes. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Goodlatte likely would be the chief Republican negotiator on any immigration bill, and his evaluation of the president’s willingness to reinterpret the law is indicative of where many of his colleagues stand.
Congressional Democrats say they, too, suffer from having their trust abused. Yet they blame Republicans, who they say have repeatedly promised to tackle the immigration issue but back away when the politics get rough.
“We were teased over and over again,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Let me tell you, any excuse will do.”
He and fellow Democrats say Republicans’ lack of trust in Mr. Obama rings hollow because of one chief statistic: Under his tenure, the government has deported about 2 million illegal immigrants, more than under any other president.
But sorting out the reality from those numbers can be difficult.
Immigration analysts question the validity of the 2 million deportation number, arguing that the Homeland Security Department has changed whom it counts as deportations.
Under other presidents, deportations generally were reserved for illegal immigrants living and working in the interior of the U.S., while those caught at the border generally were “returned” rather than deported. But the Obama administration increasingly puts those caught at the border into deportation proceedings, which has boosted the numbers but doesn’t necessarily mean more illegal immigrants are deported from the interior.
A Washington Times analysis last year of fiscal 2013 deportation numbers found that only about 1 percent of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the interior of the U.S. were deported.
Beyond the deportation numbers, the Republicans’ list of breaches of trust is extensive. They point to the administration’s lawsuits against states that want to crack down on illegal immigration and note that the Justice Department has not sued Chicago or other “sanctuary city” communities that actively shield illegal immigrants.
The administration is years behind in devising a way to measure border security after scrapping the previous definition in 2010.
Administration critics also point to a number of orders that have prevented immigration agents from deporting most rank-and-file illegal immigrants.
“It has been systematic and across the board,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates a crackdown on illegal immigration.
She said there is no evidence that the administration would get tough on future illegal immigrants even if Congress enacts a law legalizing those currently in the country.
“One of the big problems right now is that under the administration’s policy, people who are not approved for legal status are not a priority for removal — in other words, nobody is going after them to enforce the law. Whether it’s people who have been rejected for a green card or people who have been ordered removed by a judge, and absconded,” she said. “So even if there were to be a legalization program, there’s very little chance that people who don’t qualify under the rules Congress writes will have to leave. So it’s 100 percent amnesty anyway.”
On Sunday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, acknowledged the lack of trust and floated an idea designed to get around it: Pass the bill now but delay all of the implementation until 2017, when the next president is in office.
“I think the rap against [the president] that he won’t enforce the law is false. He’s deported more people than any other president. But you could actually have the law start in 2017 without doing much violence to it,” Mr. Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He said the legalization program then would begin with anyone who arrived as of the end of last year — which would be more generous than the Senate bill, which cut off at the end of 2011. Mr. Schumer’s plan would mean almost every illegal immigrant in the U.S. now would be eligible for an eventual path to citizenship.
Still, that idea comes with several major questions, including the status of illegal immigrants in the intervening three years, whether their families would be welcome to join them during that time, and whether enforcement could be boosted quickly enough to make sure no more people gain access to the U.S. illegally.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who voted against the Senate bill last year, said Mr. Schumer’s idea could attract some Republican interest as long as there was an effort to boost enforcement.
“The concern we have, as you know, is to get back to the 1986 law, last time we did this, where we did provide legalization but didn’t do the enforcement, 3 million people were legalized, another 6 million people came illegally,” he said.