Signaling another partisan fight over immigration enforcement after next week's midterm election, all seven Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee have signed a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security how much money it needs to deport every illegal immigrant the government encounters.
The request came in an Oct. 21 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and asks her to "detail exactly how much funding" would be needed "to ensure that enforcement of the law occurs consistently for every illegal alien encountered and apprehended." The Republican senators requested a response by Nov. 15.
The Obama administration, which in its first full year in office set a record for deportations by the United States, wants to continue its policy of focusing law enforcement resources on securing the border, bolstering the Border Patrol and deporting dangerous and violent offenders who are in the U.S. illegally. At the same time, Obama supports legislative reforms that would create a path to legal status for longtime residents who meet specific criteria.
Republicans on key oversight committees in Congress favor a more uniform enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, whether the offender crossed the border illegally and committed a violent crime, or was pulled over for speeding after living in the U.S. for years. In an election cycle that has polarized the debate, Republicans in leadership positions have been reluctant to endorse a potential path to legal status for any of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal residents.
An Obama administration official responded that the zero-tolerance approach suggested in the senators' letter is political theater rather than a realistic plan for solving the illegal immigration problem.
"This isn't about doing this job better in the end. This is about scoring political points, which is exactly what's wrong with the immigration debate right now," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the debate.
The GOP letter came in response to directives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, including an Aug. 20 memo in which Morton requested that U.S. attorneys consider dismissing immigration cases against people who have green card applications pending and are likely to be approved. A subsequent temporary spike in dismissals in Houston, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, caught the attention of Republican lawmakers.
In their letter to Napolitano, the senators say the government is routinely dismissing cases against illegal immigrants who have no felony convictions and "no more than two misdemeanors," and say the practice "raises serious questions about your department's commitment to enforce the immigration laws."
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, is concerned that the Obama administration has dismissed deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who have committed additional crimes. "The administration's failure to uphold the law is causing it to lose the confidence of the public," Sessions said.
"The best solution to the problem of illegal immigration is to enforce current laws," said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, who is in line to take over the chairmanship if the GOP regains a majority.
Smith doesn't see immigration reform as a solution to handling immigrants already in the U.S. without legal status. "Attrition through enforcement can reduce the number of illegal immigrants already in the U.S," Smith said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a budget of $5.7 billion, its highest funding in history, and has the capacity to deport about 390,000 people a year, or less than 4% of the people who are in the U.S. illegally. At a rough estimate, deporting 11 million people would cost about $80 billion, said a senior administration official familiar with the ICE budget.
A deportation effort of that magnitude would have a major impact on families, an activist said.
"A very substantial percentage of illegal residents are married to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents," said Paul Donnelly, a longtime activist for immigrant rights who represents American Families United. "Those citizens have rights, legal family rights, that I hope the Congress would respect. It is wrong to tell a U.S. citizen to choose between her family and her country."
The Democratic Party is under pressure to court Latino voters who are frustrated with the lack of movement on an immigration overhaul and could stay home in large numbers on election day. A poll by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 51% of Latinos said they would vote in this election, compared with 70% of the general population.
The Obama administration deported 392,862 people last year, up from the 369,221 people deported two years earlier in the last full year of the Bush administration.
In an interview broadcast Monday on Univision, Obama was pressed to stop the record deportations. Obama said his administration's approach to deporting illegal immigrants "puts less emphasis on families, more emphasis on those with criminal records."
But the only way to achieve true immigration reform is to change the law, Obama said, and to do that, he needs Republican votes in Congress. "I am president; I am not king," he said.