Roberto Suro: Obama’s Immigration Conundrum


October 18, 2011
Obama is facing “quite a negative legacy on an issue that has cried out for policy-making,” says Suro, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. He previously worked as director of the Pew Hispanic Center and as a reporter at The Washington Post. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 9, 2011.

I want to start in May actually, because the president took a trip down to El Paso, Texas. Why did he go, and what was the significance of what he was doing?

… It was one of a series of important statements on immigration that he gave on the first half of that year and [on] this occasion he chose to go to the banks of the Rio Grande near El Paso — interestingly enough to a place where the Rio Grande goes through basically a conduit, a big concrete canal that was created because it used to wander, and Mexicans and the Americans for 100 years argued over where the border was, because the Rio Grande would shift.

Then [it was] decided you could just take the Rio Grande and put it in a concrete conduit, and that would fix everything. And it’s very symbolic of the notion that a border can be controlled, regulated, fixed; can be laid in concrete. …

“It’s going to be hard at this point for Obama to mobilize Latino votes on immigration. Obama cannot come back again and say: ‘Next time, in the first year, I’m going to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Forget the last four years. Sorry. Same promise you heard four years ago. I’m just saying again, this time I mean it.’”

The importance of that El Paso speech was that Obama, front and center, right there on the border, said: “I believe enforcement has to come first. I accept that idea. Republicans have said it. We’ve done it.”

And the Republicans had insisted for sometime that you had to be able to show you were controlling the borders, that you had an enforcement effort, that the government was credible about policing immigration before you could do anything else. …

But enforcement in pursuit of what? What was his goal here?

Enforcement in immigration policy has become almost this mythic end unto itself. To understand why enforcement has become this big political factor in immigration, you have to go back to the fact that Washington has been unable to enact new immigration legislation for like 20 years. … . And it’s in this vacuum of repeated failed efforts to create new policies that enforcement all of a sudden has become this kind of talisman, that you have to prove the government is in control. …

So there’s a lot of symbolic dancing around this projection of control.

So that protection of the border politically is important to achieving what goal? What was Obama after? What was he trying to achieve by stepping out? And what was he pushing?

What exactly Obama’s trying to achieve by projecting the image of control of immigration, both border control and interior enforcement, and deportations, what he’s trying to achieve in terms of policy or politics, both ways [are] a little bit of a mystery. I’m not sure it’s not easy to add up all the pieces and say, “Here’s the explanation.”

I can tell you what he says. And interestingly, Obama’s rhetoric on enforcement quotes very directly from George W. Bush. It’s an idea that Bush launched during the debates of 2006 and 2007, which was, we’ll show you we’re in control. Therefore, you can enact more welcoming policies.

It was this idea, there’s a predicate before you can do legalization; [that] was the key thing. Before you can say to the 10, 11 million people who are here out of status, “We’re going to give you a path to legality,” you have to show you’re in control. …

And interestingly enough, not for any obvious reasons, the Obama administration just borrowed that. Many of the policies on the border and in terms of worksite enforcement were adaptations of the Bush policies, and in some cases just continuing the same trajectories.

And the political rhetoric has not changed that much. Obama says regularly: “We’ve shown we’re willing to spend money and put people under control. We’re willing to deport criminal aliens and whoever else falls awry of the immigration courts. We’ll deport as many people as Congress budgets us for, and therefore it’s OK to contemplate more liberalized measures, particularly legalization.”

So that logic of “enforce so that you can liberalize” originated with Bush and is now getting repeated with Obama. … There’s no evidence that it works, not at, you know, 5,000 members of the border patrol, not at 8,000, not at 10,000, not at 15,000. It’s not clear that any number will actually turn the political numbers in a way that favors legalization. …

It is true that the border flows have significantly dropped?

Flows have dropped enormously for now five years, and it’s not clear that they’re in any way correlated to enforcement. The flows started dropping as soon as the housing industry went into the tank in 2006, and we’re talking about a labor migration of low-skilled workers that is extremely sensitive to the U.S. economy.

It picked up during the recovery or whatever you’re going to call that period in 2009 and 2010 when we thought things were getting better. …

You look back 10, 15 years, and as best you can tell from the numbers, the strongest correlation for the flow of Mexicans, particularly in the United States, is demand in the U.S. labor market. But unemployment goes up, the flow goes down.

So the absolute best policy for cutting illegal immigration is continued recession. It’s just sort of a high price to pay, but at 9 percent unemployment, you get fewer people coming here.

At the same time, the strong enforcement is something that the average American supports. This is a terrifically popular position.

The popularity of enforcement depends on how you put it to people. When you ask in public opinion polls, “Do you support strong enforcement of immigration laws?,” people say yes. If you ask people, “Do you support strong enforcement of almost any laws?,” they say yes. If you say, “Do you think the best way to reduce illegal immigration is to try and control it at the border or to try and control it in workplaces?,” a majority of people consistently say no, it’s going to be much more effective at the workplace.

If you say, “Do you think that widespread large numbers of deportations are effective in controlling immigration?,” they’re smart enough to realize that it is not a great control mechanism. There are certain categories of people — criminals for sure; nobody says you shouldn’t deport somebody who’s a criminal — but is it a policy that leads you to a better place overall?

In most polls, most Americans will say you need to use a lot of tools, and when surveys say, “Do you favor a package of different kinds of tools to reach a better place on immigration?,” most people will say yes, it’s going to take a bunch of different things.

You talked about the president continuing the policies of his predecessors, but how do you characterize the enforcement strategy policy and scale of the current president?

When you talk about enforcement, there are two things to focus on in terms of the last 10 years or so and what leads you to the Obama administration. One is the set of tools being used, and the other is the scale.

When you talk about scale [of enforcement] on certain areas on the border, it’s been going up, going up, going up, and it’s continued going up under Obama about at the same pace as it had been before. A lot of those measures were put in place before this president took office: Building the wall, adding to the border patrol, all those things were kind of in motion.

In terms of internal enforcement — apprehending people, putting them in a detention system and then removing them from the country — the scale has gone way up. Under Obama, numbers are significantly higher than they were under Bush. …

The policies that Obama has implemented to get to very high numbers of deportations were all pretty much started under the Bush administration, and the logic of it had started under Bush. So what you’ve got is, in some important regards, Obama has juiced up the Bush policies, and some of it in interesting ways.

The last two years of the Bush administration, we saw these big, spectacular worksite raids where — very noticeable on Spanish-language television, much more than what most Americans saw — about 20 buses pulling up to a factory, you know, all these ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents jumping out in their black vests and then leading away people by the dozens.

Obama has not been doing that. It’s been much more individual actions and also relying on local police in the apprehension of people for all kinds of different sorts of violations that get them into the system, and then they end up getting deported, in many cases for noncriminal-type violations. About half the deportations in 2010 were people who had come into contact with law enforcement through something other than the accusation of having committed a crime. …

… I just want to sort of understand the strategy from the White House perspective about why they’re staying tough on enforcement and the importance of the numbers, because he talks about deportations there as well. …

Let’s look back at Obama on immigration policy. As a candidate, he said he favored a comprehensive immigration reform within the first year. Comprehensive immigration reform was this idea that was kicking around at the end of the Bush term, tried by Bush to get enacted, stalemated in the Senate when he couldn’t deliver Republican votes, and you had some Democrats falling off.

Anyway, you’ve got this idea that it’s been around, fully articulated, volumes of legislation already written, so there’s nothing new about the ideas that Obama was proposing. He basically came into office saying: “I’m going to take something that exists. We’re going to put it on the agenda. We’re going to get it enacted.” …

Turned out, nothing happened, because the first year of the administration was spent with economic crisis. Then we got into health care reform, and then came the 2010 elections, and all of a sudden, instead of having a favorable Congress, they had lost the House and were not going to be able to get anything like this measure through the Senate.

So Obama, from after he took office and for the whole of the first term until now, has said consistently: “I want comprehensive immigration reform, but I can’t do it alone. I need somebody to dance with, and the dance has to be Republicans.”

Leave aside that he doesn’t entirely control all the Democratic votes on this. Let’s leave that aside: “I need somebody to dance with, and it’s going to be the Republicans.” There’s no sign, nor has there been any sign at any point, that he’s ever likely to get enough Republicans to pass this bill without really energetic pressure on his own party or without getting engaged in it himself or getting into a negotiation or something happening.

He has basically said: “I’m waiting. When you’re ready, we’re going to trot out this old policy, and we’ll enact it.” In the meantime, however, he has continued the trajectory of aggressive enforcement, and these things are now kind of out of whack.

… The possibilities of comprehensive reform have dropped so drastically. I mean, no one thinks that it’s likely to come anywhere close to getting enacted with the current configuration in Washington, so talking about it becomes kind of a meaningless exercise. To say, “What we’re waiting for is for the Republicans to get together with us to enact this,” is a statement that doesn’t bear any clear reflection to anything that’s likely to happen. …

So there’s not a clear “Where does this go?” It’s not obvious. I mean, he’s saying, “I’m waiting for X, Y and Z to happen so we can enact this law,” when we know there’s no chance of either X or Y happening or this law getting enacted.

In the meantime, Z — we’re going to keep increasing enforcement — keeps happening. So you’ve got this one piece of what should have been a larger puzzle, a larger set of factors, leading toward a political and policy resolution that has continued on its own trajectory while everything else has fallen apart.

Is there not some political gain from that, though? That trajectory, that image, that position where he’s a strong law-and-order president?

Let’s put it this way: You look at a spectrum of voters that somebody like Obama is likely to gain from projecting a strong effort on enforcement of immigration policy. Maybe there’s some people in the middle who, if animated, will care about this enough that it will make some difference.

The people who are most articulate on enforcement, who raise the issue consistently in public opinion polling, the people who are loudest about it, are so far off his spectrum of likely voters that there’s no way he’s ever going to get them. …

You mentioned candidate Obama, and he sort of stepped up and made some promises there. What were those promises, and what was the reaction in the Latino community, and how important was that for him in 2008?

When you think back to Obama and immigration, you’ve got to remember the long, tough fight for the nomination, in which one of the factors that kept Hillary Clinton alive through that spring was her consistent support from Latino primary voters. This rolled through California, which saved her on Super Tuesday, Texas primary, over and over again. She did very well with a very concerted effort, and this was part of the Clinton strategy on the nomination. …

So Obama gets nominated, weak in terms of Latino support, and at the end of the nomination battle, trying to make sure he gets some Latino primary voters, it’s in that context that he makes this promise: “I’m going to do comprehensive immigration reform my first year,” words that I’m sure he wanted to get back as soon as they were uttered.

It’s a rookie error. I mean, you never promise you’re going to do something in the first year when it’s not clear a, that it’s one of your priorities, or b, that it’s possible.

So first year, there was no chance that it was going to happen. The first year was all about bailouts and TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] and struggling to keep the country afloat in the middle of an economic crisis. …

The Obama campaign won for a lot of reasons in 2008, and it succeeded with Latino voters for as many reasons as it succeeded with young voters, with college-educated voters, a lot of other constituencies that saw in that campaign the constellation of virtues. So let’s not say that that one promise won the Latino vote, because it’s too simplistic.

But he was stuck with the promise. That’s the problem with saying something like that. It’s one piece of an overall approach to a constituency, but then you’re stuck with a very simple promise.

First year went by, OK. Second year, people started getting riled, because you had Democratic majorities in both houses and still nothing. All the preoccupation with health [care], no discussion of immigration, and the advocates in particular started pushing.

Same time, deportations started increasing, and the sense of pressure in immigrant communities became palpable. That combination has led to a lot of disillusionment among Latino advocates in particular, and some Latino elected officials.

And it’s clear, for example, in the Spanish-language media, the president is treated harshly on immigration openly. The sense of a broken promise is very clear. The sense that Latino voters have been courted because they’re useful but not really taken into account has also become quite tangible.

So there’s a cost to that promise when it wasn’t delivered on. Whether that matters in 2012 will depend on a whole lot of things.

Take a moment in terms of Secure Communities, because there’s one thing for people to say, OK, he was busy, he had other things on his plate, right? And some of these policies were previous policies or whatever. But Secure Communities is something that seems to be his.

You leave aside the failure to enact any new laws, because a lot of people can share [blame in] that. There are a lot of circumstances; there’s Congress; there’s all the rest. Leave aside the legislative part.

The administrative part of immigration policy Obama owns, and right now, what he owns is an ugly mess that has earned him a fair number of enemies and probably not a lot of friends. What Obama owns is his policy. His contribution to immigration reform is Secure Communities, what is now a broken policy by the administration’s own admission.

In this case, the seeds of this idea were born in the aftermath of 9/11; the seeds of this idea are an anti-terrorism policy, where there are two ideas that came out of the [then-Attorney General John] Ashcroft Justice Department. One was that you need to enlist local law enforcement as a whole other set of eyes when you’re in this war against terrorism, and when you’ve got the threat of internal actors, that there are bad people loose in the country, you need local law enforcement looking all the time.

The second piece of policy was that when in doubt, if you don’t have enough on somebody on a terrorism charge, immigration violations are a very easy way to apprehend somebody and detain them and possibly remove them from the country.

So you don’t need to know that somebody’s involved in a conspiracy or go to the level of criminal charges, and in the initial aftermath of 9/11, there was this policy requiring all males of military age basically from 17 countries to show up and register — all Arab, all Islamic countries — and a lot of people got excluded for deportation violations. So you’re using immigration law as a tool in a basically anti-terrorism policy. You’re using local law enforcement as a tool in anti-terrorism policy.

[Editor’s Note: The Justice Department suspended the registration policy, known as the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), in December 2003.]

You put these two things together, and, over time what developed was a much more robust interaction between local law enforcement and the immigration authorities and increasingly not in pursuit of terrorists but in pursuit of people who are in violation of immigration law. …

How much of this is just a problem of mathematics? The fact is that you said this has been a steady escalation of deportations, right? At some point, you can say, I’m after the serious criminals, the violent offenders, but how many are out there? Is it just a matter of not appreciating the size and scale?

Your numbers matter, but I think in this case, there are issues of policy and principle which should have been obvious from the start. …

There’s no question that people at DHS [Department of Homeland Security] said if you do 600,000, 700,000 deportations a year, you’re going to end up with a lot of people who are not criminal aliens. You don’t have the tools to get that purity at those numbers.

[Editor’s Note: DHS projections are around 400,000 deportations per year.]

Let’s say [your policy,] it’s going to be 100 percent criminal aliens. You start implementing policies like Secure Communities, which mean that anybody who gets fingerprinted, who comes into law enforcement enough to get their prints taken, then goes into the system, guarantees you that you’re going to get a certain percentage of people who are not felons.

If your intent is only to get felons, you’re going to get people who aren’t. I mean, this was known, so there are a number of possibilities. I think the most logical one was, OK, we’re going to go after felons. If we get some other people, that’s not the end of the world.

They’re enforcing the law, and it’s argued that you can’t just enforce the law against felons; that if people are here illegally, they should go, because if you’re going to have integrity in the system, you have to make it clear that you’re going to enforce the laws against everybody.

Right. This is one of the big arguments and one of Obama’s talking points in all these speeches is: “I’ve got to enforce the law. I’ve got to enforce the law against everybody. I don’t get a choice about which laws I enforce and whether the law is enforced toward one person more than another person.”

Well, the man has been a lawyer for a long time, and he knows that that’s not true. There’s discretion. There’s discretion in law enforcement at every level. You decide where you’re going to put cops. You don’t put cops everywhere equally. You don’t put the same number of cops investigating jaywalking as you do murders. You don’t prosecute the same number of crimes when you have limited resources, which is always the case.

In law enforcement, you have policies. You say, we have targets. This is what’s important and where we want to devote our resources to getting these kinds of people. Well, in this case, the argument has been quite rightfully that there are people who are known to be dangerous, who shouldn’t be at large and who can be removed from the public through immigration law. They shouldn’t even be in the country, so we can deal with them as a society by deporting them.

That makes a lot of sense. If you have a limited number of resources, you want to make sure that those resources are going to be prioritized to the most dangerous people. That takes some strategy. It doesn’t take casting the widest net. You want to then show your policy is designed to get the highest possible number of the most dangerous people, because what we’re doing is removing people who shouldn’t be around off the streets, and that’s enforcing the law.

That’s not what this administration has done.

But this administration has also been intent on showing that they’re increasing the numbers of people and deportations, haven’t they?

I honestly don’t know whether sheer numbers have been a purposeful activity and at what level. There are people in this administration who have said that ICE in the field operates on its own in terms of numbers. You’ve had midlevel and senior persons kind of wash their hands. You’ve had situations where it has appeared that at the local level you’ve had ICE directors who have set quotas.

You have Sec. Napolitano and John Morton talking about record levels of deportation.

Right. They have certainly boasted. The administration’s senior officials, Cabinet members, … — Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security; John Morton, the head of ICE; the president himself — have boasted about record levels of deportation.

So did they set out to break the records as a matter of policy? They’ve never said our goal was to hit numbers. And they certainly have said that we don’t hit numbers; we don’t set numbers as a matter of policy.

But look, this is not a new story in law enforcement, where you have a law enforcement official who says, “I’m not going after numbers,” but then boasts about the numbers, right? I mean, this is not new to this administration, so it could be that it’s just that same old basic kind of political play that you get in law enforcement.

Isn’t this an indication of being tough on enforcement? I mean, isn’t that a metric that you use to establish your bona fides?

So how do you decide whether law enforcement policy is effective? Is it by the number of people who are being apprehended and jailed? Is it by decreases in the occurrence of the crime? Is it by a greater sense of confidence and security on the part of the public?

These are all different metrics, and the number of people who get apprehended is only one of them, and it’s not necessarily in every case the best metric of an effective policy.

… It’s really now about 2012, and you’ve made the case that there’s no comprehensive reform here. What’s the political problem at this point with President Obama?

The political problem for Obama on immigration starts with the fact that immigration is not a simple kind of left/right issue. It’s not one of these that always just cuts clearly red/blue. It’s got some complicated wrinkles in it, and you get different constituencies that care about different parts of the puzzle, some more than others.

It’s an issue that’s very susceptible to demagoguery and that you have to worry about an opponent’s use of as much as what you do with it. So to a certain extent, immigration politics has tended to be defensive, often beyond base voters.

So how does this apply to Obama? Latinos are part of his base, and they are going to be a critical part of his base, assuming that the Intermountain West is a battleground the way it has been in several of the past cycles, and increasingly non-Cuban voters in Florida could be important. So he has to ensure that he doesn’t alienate those voters. Certainly doesn’t want to deflate them to the point where they’re unenthusiastic about his candidacy.

Any Democrat is going to carry a majority of the Latino vote, but the difference between carrying 55 percent and 62 percent or 63 percent, let alone 64 percent, that really small share that can swing, can make a big difference in a few key states, so how does immigration play there?

It’s going to be hard at this point for Obama to mobilize Latino votes on immigration. Obama cannot come back again and say: “Next time, in the first year, I’m going to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Forget the last four years. Sorry. Same promise you heard four years ago. I’m just saying again, this time I mean it.” …

He can’t credibly say anything much about laws he’ll get enacted through Congress, so he’s left trying not to alienate people with what he has control over, Latino voters, and I think one of the results of the necessity not to alienate Latino voters is the back-pedaling we are seeing on Secure Communities, although it’s only partial back-pedaling, because this administration takes one step back and then one step forward. …

I mean, this is the problem. Where are they going? You know, they went backward; they did prosecutorial discretion [PDF] and then said, “We’re going through the policy regardless of these state[d] agreements.” …

And if the White House calculation is: “You know what? It’s more important for us to be a strong law-and-order enforcement-type president,” somebody that, for them, [is] the center? …

There is a long history of Democratic strategists who have thought white centrist voters are so valuable that you can either ignore or slightly alienate minorities who are part of your base. Been done with African American voters. Been done with Latino voters. It’s kind of like, “I know you’re going to be with me, so if I’ve got to do law-and-order stuff that’s hard for you to swallow, I’m doing it for these other folks over here.”

That’s happened a lot. Could happen again, where basically Obama says to U.S. Latino voters: “Look, it’s not about you; it’s about me. I’ve got to do this to get elected. Sorry you don’t like it, but I’ve got to be very tough on this issue in a way that you see through and I know you see through it.”

The problem with the tough-on-enforcement policy, particularly the way it’s played out under Obama, where the emphasis has been on internal enforcement, it’s not a matter of Latino voters knowing somebody who’s been deported. It’s a matter of people knowing that this policy is a, ineffective, and b, quite harsh on the people who are affected. …

Ultimately, it’s not just the promise; it’s the fact that people are being touched personally.

This enforcement policy and the deportations [are] largely invisible to most voters, I’d say. It appears in the U.S.-language media every once in a while. It’s on Spanish-language television and radio and newspapers all the time, all the time — the stories of the kids who get out of school and there’s nobody to pick them up because their parents got hauled off in the middle of the day; the fathers who are gone; the people who end up in a detention system and nobody knows where they are for three months until they can track them down in some rental jail somewhere in the high desert.

These stories are there in front of Latino voters who get their news in Spanish every day, and they become a very vivid part of what the Obama administration is about. It’s something that won’t be appreciated by people who only occasionally read about the affect of immigration enforcement. But I promise you, the sense of human cost that has resulted from this enforcement effort is very real to Latino voters who get their news in Spanish, and in a few months Obama’s going to be putting ads on those same TV shows, saying, “Vote for me,” and that sale is going to clash with the impression people have, unless there’s some political effort to remedy this. …

And it’s threading a political needle that’s not going to be easy. To a certain extent, the administration’s gotten itself into a box on immigration, and it’s boxed its own moves in a way: It can’t reach out to Latino voters in a way without risking alienating other voters because it’s gone so far in one direction on enforcement and because it has failed, along with Congress, to take any other actions on immigration policy.

We’ve had four years, nothing has happened, nothing in terms of new policies, and it comes after previous years where at least there was a debate. During the Bush years there was a debate. There were ideas out; Congress took votes; things happened, and you could argue whether your side won or lost. At least these people had a sense that this issue was being addressed.

Now there’s nothing really moving legislatively, and all you’ve got is the enforcement actions.

Does he have any sense of what’s happening in the communities in terms of the ramifications of enforcement, the potential political cost? There seems to be great irony here that this particular individual, this particular narrative or story —

Obama, probably more than any recent president, has a biography that is very close to the immigrant experience. I mean, his father wasn’t exactly an immigrant, but he was certainly somebody who was in the United States from abroad. He himself has got some of the elements of the journey in his biography.

At the same time, it does not appear that this is an issue that really resonates with him intellectually. It’s not something that he ever showed any signs of caring about before becoming president. He’s responded to it when obliged to, once in office. You get the feeling that he talks about it when he thinks he needs to, that it’s not like on his top 10 list of things to get done today.

And I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s part of the realm of his experience, oddly enough.

There’s an interesting contrast between, say, Obama and George W. Bush. George W. Bush, regardless of what you think of him as a president or his positions on immigration, was very close to this issue. He had a personal sense of it. He talked about it in terms of his own experiences. Still, having been the offspring of a Connecticut Yankee family, he had a real sense about immigration. And you can leave aside whether you think it was honest or not, but there was a personal connection there.

… Ronald Reagan had an interesting personal sense about immigration. It was part of his vision of America as exceptional, and when he spoke about it, there was a passion to the way Ronald Reagan spoke about immigration, because, as I say, it was part of his sense of American identity.

You don’t get that from Obama. I mean, he’s given big speeches, State of the Union speeches where it’s like it’s an inserted sentence, and you get the feeling that if no one ever asked about it, he would never talk about it.

During the El Paso speech, he says: “Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don’t relish the pain that it causes in the lives of people who are just trying to get by and get caught up in the system. As long as the current laws are on the books, it’s not just hard felons who are subject to removal, but it’s sometimes families who are just trying to earn a living or bright, eager students or decent people with the best of intentions.” He seems to understand there’s pain in this. …

So in May, Obama goes to El Paso and talks about how we don’t relish the pain we’re causing. But the laws are such that sometimes decent people, students, hardworking families, get caught up in the law and have to be deported, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a bad law, but I have to enforce it. That’s May.

July, six weeks later, his Department of Homeland Security issues a memo [PDF], saying we’re going to exercise prosecutorial discretion, and eager students, families, decent people earning a living, we’re not going to deport.

So the problem with the “we don’t relish the pain” attitude that he took in the El Paso speech and had during the whole period of the big deportations was a, it didn’t work as a policy statement; b, it didn’t work as a political statement, and c, by the administration’s own admission, it wasn’t true.

He went around — you can show the clips [of] all the times he said, “We have to enforce the law”; “we have to enforce the law”; “we have to enforce the law.” And then John Morton issues a memo saying you don’t have to enforce the law. …

Now supposedly there’s going to be an exercise of discretion. They’re going to go after high-value targets. That’s what the administration has said as of July. Everybody’s waiting to see how this plays out.

How much has this machinery been built [into this system]? How much has the machinery been built that they can even control?

I sat in on a meeting of White House officials and Latino and immigration advocates in early May, where people from DHS and the White House were saying, “Well, it’s ICE,” and, “It’s ICE that’s doing this, and we don’t like it any more than you do.” And you can imagine how that went over.

People said: “Wait a minute. How can you say that you’re not taking responsibility for this?” And the White House said, “You’ve got to understand how hard it is once a bureaucracy gains momentum.”

So this excuse, this notion that it is a law enforcement bureaucracy that has a life of its own, has been used by this White House politically, and it didn’t fly. It was used all through the spring, and then you had the El Paso speech, and it still wasn’t flying.

And the end result was the discretion memo, where you had not just Latino advocates at that point, but people like Deval Patrick, [Democratic] governor of Massachusetts, the police chiefs of major cities, all kinds of people saying to the administration: “This is hogwash. You can’t claim this is bureaucratic momentum. Exercise your authority, and you’ve got authority.” And the administration did.

So if they come back six months from now and say, “Yeah, we issued this letter and told everybody up and down the line, here’s the policy: Go after high-value targets,” and they’re still picking up people at car washes who have got traffic violations, then how do you explain it, that ICE district directors do what they want?

That they still have the pressure to get the numbers. They still have the pressure.

Well, we’ll see. I don’t want to prejudge. Let me put it this way: It’s going to be very difficult under the new guidelines to get the old numbers, because if the priority is in fact to devote resources to getting the most dangerous people off the street, there are going to be less resources for getting less dangerous people off the street.

So the line is going to have to be, “We apprehended X many dangerous felons,” not “We apprehended two times the people who are just out of status.” …

Do you think this [discretion memo] actually may change their policy in terms of enforcement?

Am I willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that this memo is actually genuine and will be enforced? It’s not my job to figure out whether they’re acting in good faith or not, but [with] this administration, one thing is clear: This administration has put down a marker with the discretion memo. It’s made another promise. And that’s how it was read.

It was read as another promise, saying: “OK, we got the message. We are not changing course.” That’s the way that was sold and perceived, and if a year from now, let alone 15 months from now, when we’re in the heart of the campaign, the impression is that that was another broken promise — and that impression only has to exist in the minds of the Spanish-language media, really — you can take the edge off the Latino vote, because it will come as another broken promise.

I don’t know what the weight of that memo is in terms of actual administrative terms — how it’s being carried out, how forcefully the message has gone down the chain. I don’t know how much control the central administration at DHS has over district offices, but I do know the way it was perceived, and it was perceived as the administration saying, “OK, we’re not going to go after ordinary people who happen to be out of status; we’re going to focus on people who are dangerous.” And whether they do that or not will be easy to know.

How big a gamble is the president taking in immigration, in his policies and in the way he has applied the policies and the strategy?

… There’s been every reason to assume for a long time that 2012 would be a close election, and everything that happens makes it seem like it’s going to be closer. The closer, the narrower the margins, the more important the Latino vote gets.

If you win in a landslide, it doesn’t matter, and a lot of it is concentrated in states that aren’t in play. It really comes down to Latino voters in a few places in a close election. But in a close election, … for sure Colorado, Nevada, perhaps New Mexico, perhaps Arizona also, get to be crucial battlegrounds, and if those states are battlegrounds, then not just the marginal Latino vote but the size of the turnout will be important, and if you take the energy out of Latino voters in those states, it could be dangerous for Obama if it’s a close election.

If you’ve got big plays happening in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, if you lose any one of those, you’ve got to carry these of the Intermountain West, and it gets very hard to carry those states if you don’t get a really solid showing of Latino voters.

So it’s a small political play and not a big number of people, but in a close election, the math is such that it could be really important. In a close election, a lot of things decide the election, right? There are a lot of individual constituencies that swing individual states, so I’m not one of those people who say the election’s going to be decided by Latino voters. I don’t believe that.

They could be among the five or six or seven constituencies that play really crucial roles in who manages to cross the line.

Is this issue important to his legacy, who he is, that he stands for human rights, civil rights? Talk a little about where he came from. Is it something that becomes important in terms of how Barack Obama is perceived?

Obama will have been president during a period when the number of immigrants and number of immigrants and their children was [as] close to being a substantial part of the population as it ever has been, particularly when you count the children. Obama’s been president at a time when immigration has been key to the nation’s demographic future and has been important to its economic viability and competitiveness in the present.

… I’m beginning to wonder whether he has put a mark on the issue.

Some people have said it’s one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, when you think about the number of people in the detention system, what that system is like; [when you] think about the numbers of families ripped apart, the number of deportations.

When people look back, they’ll see that Obama was president at a time when immigration was very important to the nation’s population, to its economic competitiveness, to the future character of the country, and at this point, the only mark he’s really left on this whole area of national activity is a detention and deportation policy and, using this very blunt, not very effective, sometimes inhumane, sometimes quite cruel instrument to achieve a sense of control.

And if that’s all there is, it really won’t be much of a legacy. It will be quite a negative legacy on an issue that has cried out for policy-making. And he’s recognized the need for new policies. He’s said over and over and over again the system is broken, it needs to be fixed, but has really done next to nothing to try and fix it, while, on the other hand, has ramped up this policy of enforcement. And that’s all you’ll have at this point. If that’s what Obama’s legacy on immigration is, it’s more than a missed opportunity.

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