Cut back deportations, pass immigration bill


October 9, 2013 5:12PM

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Updated: November 11, 2013 12:14PM

The federal government shutdown has swamped all other matters in Washington, but it is no excuse for delaying all action on broad immigration reform.

Prospects for congressional action on immigration reform have dimmed for the moment, but the Obama administration should take immediate action on a related issue — throttling back the deportation machine for people who have not committed serious crimes.

Two years ago, the administration announced it would target dangerous criminals for deportation, while giving prosecutors discretion to give breaks to undocumented immigrants who were close relatives of citizens, who were brought to the United States as children or who had served in the military. But that largely has not worked. The system has churned out deportations all the same, to the point that they now take place at the rate of 400,000 per year, more than during the administration of President George W. Bush. The number of people deported under the Obama administration is close to 2 million, the vast majority of whom were never a crime threat.

Because comprehensive immigration reform legislation is bottled up in the U.S. House for now, Obama should revisit this issue and find a better way to limit deportations. Too big a reduction might scare away potential Republican votes for immigration reform, but there is a middle ground. Immigration reform advocates point to last summer’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an executive order that protects children who were getting swept up in the deportation process. Expanding that concept to other groups could help.

Every day that nothing happens in the nation’s capital, workers who fear deportation are mistreated with impunity, families are torn apart when a breadwinner is picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and taken away, and children worry about their future in the only country they have ever known.

Faced with these problems, two states have acted on their own. California Gov. Jerry Brown and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy have signed bills that substantially limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Backers of the bills say they don’t want to use their jails as holding pens for ICE and they want to restore trust among immigrants who, fearing deportation, don’t report crimes.

Meanwhile, Congress needs to act on stalled immigration reform. On Tuesday, Illinois Democrats Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Rep. Jan Schakowsky were among 200 demonstrators arrested on the National Mall during a protest designed to call attention to the need for immigration reform. Other marches and vigils were held in 40 states. A similar March for Dignity, Respect and Justice is scheduled for Saturday in Chicago, gathering at noon at Teamster City, 1645 W. Jackson, and winding up with a 3 p.m. rally at the Federal Plaza.

Citing the Tuesday demonstrations, the White House has issued a statement calling for the House to take up the immigration bill. The blueprint for an agreement is already in hand. In June, the Senate passed a compromise measure with bipartisan support that would provide billions of dollars to secure the nation’s borders and provide a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who were here before 2012. But House Speaker John Boehner has declined to put it up for a vote.

Some House Republicans favor piecemeal legislation, instead of a compromise bill. The House Judiciary Committee has produced single-issue immigration bills that could go to the floor this year or next. That’s just a way to take immigration reform back to Square One.

Reform advocates believe they have the votes in the House to pass a comprehensive bill that’s close to the Senate’s. The leadership, refusing for once to be ordered about by the far right, should give the House a chance to do so.

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