As Congress moves slowly on immigration reform, President Obama is making numerous policy changes in enforcement and other areas that are designed to shift priorities and boost confidence in the administration as it lays the groundwork for possible legislation.
Most of the changes are being driven by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and are primarily aimed at illegal immigrants with criminal records and employers who hire undocumented workers. Napolitano is working with lawmakers to develop a strategy for comprehensive legislative reforms.
In the meantime, she is “taking steps to ensure enforcement is conducted wisely and well,” said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.
The recent administrative changes include:
* New guidelines directing immigration agents to target employers who hire illegal immigrants rather than simply arresting undocumented employees.
* A requirement that all local police agencies deputized to check immigration status and turn criminals over for possible deportation sign new agreements pledging to focus on those who pose a risk to public safety.
* The implementation of a rule that requires federal contractors to use E-Verify, an online employment-verification program.
* The expansion of a program that uses government databases during the booking process to find illegal immigrants in the nation’s jails.
Napolitano is expected to address immigration detention next. Administration officials said top experts are looking at all detention facilities, private and public, to see whether they are efficiently, safely and effectively operated. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the detention centers, has been heavily criticized for providing inadequate medical care and for violating detainees’ due process.
“It’s safe to say that we are going to look pretty seriously at the results and no doubt make some changes,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the changes.
Immigrant-rights advocates praised Obama for fixing what he can now while he begins working on reform legislation. Obama has said repeatedly that he will push for a bill that would include a path to legalization for the nation’s undocumented immigrants.
“It makes sense to do now what the administration can do,” said Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO. “It doesn’t have to go through Congress. It doesn’t have to go through the toxic political process.”
Obama’s announcements are a deliberate effort to distinguish his approach from that of the Bush administration, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
The focus on employers is the most obvious example, Meissner said. The Homeland Security Department is moving away from the high-profile raids of the Bush administration that drew headlines and led to the arrests of hundreds of illegal workers. Instead, they are focusing on investigations of companies, notifying more than 650 businesses this month of plans to audit their employment records.
“The contrast is quantity versus quality,” Meissner said. “The Bush administration was really interested in the numbers of people that they could remove from the country. . . . But it was random and ultimately was not going to the source of the problem.”
But critics said Obama and Homeland Security officials were weakening the immigration laws and making it easier for illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S.
“They are systematically gutting the enforcement capabilities of the federal government,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Their strategy is to try and demonstrate they are serious about [enforcement] at the same time without actually doing it.”
The government may have shifted its focus to employers, but workers are still being laid off because of increased audits and the use of E-Verify, said Nathalie Contreras, a union organizer and member of Southern California Immigration Coalition. “Employers are taking advantage of Obama’s policy and laying off workers,” she said. “It puts [workers] in a very difficult position.”
Overhill Farms, a major food processing plant in Vernon, fired 260 workers in May after an Internal Revenue Service audit found that they provided “invalid or fraudulent” Social Security numbers. Like agriculture, the food-processing and preparation sectors rely heavily on immigrant labor, much of it illegal.
Meanwhile, other administration policy changes are underway.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. overturned an order by the Bush administration that limited the ability of immigrants fighting deportation to make claims of incompetent counsel.
At the border, Napolitano has shifted hundreds of federal agents and intelligence analysts to the area to target the southbound flow of weapons and the northbound flow of drugs, attack the drug cartels and prevent drug violence from spilling into the U.S.
The federal government is also clearing the backlog of pending FBI background checks on immigration petitions and speeding up processing of citizenship applications.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said it’s always faster for the president to make policy than for Congress.
“You don’t need 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, or floor time or debate time,” she said. But Lofgren said only Congress can fix the legal immigration process and the long waits for family petitions. She also hasn’t agreed with every change and is still waiting for Napolitano to address medical care in detention.
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, said Obama must tread carefully when it comes to the administrative changes, especially on enforcement. “The more robust the enforcement, the more eyebrows are going to go up in the Latino community,” she said. “If legislation doesn’t happen by 2012, and the only thing he has to show is enforcement, there would be a lot of explaining to do before folks enter the ballot box.”