IN THE fiscal year that ended in October, U.S. authorities deported almost 370,000 immigrants, continuing a record-setting pace begun late in the Bush administration and sustained by the Obama administration. President Obama has defended this policy of aggressive enforcement by insisting that it focuses on criminals and other “people who were hurting the community.” In fact, fewer than a fifth of those deported last year, about 72,000, had been convicted of major crimes, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures. Most of the rest — many of whom were detained along the border, often while crossing it illegally — were guilty of relatively minor violations, including traffic offenses and loitering, or had no previous criminal records. Not exactly the threats to the community that Mr. Obama described.
A study by the New York Times further buttresses the point. With records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Times analyzed 3.2 million deportations over the past decade, including nearly 2 million since Mr. Obama took office. It found that those deported in 2013 fit the pattern that the Obama administration has followed from the outset. Just 20 percent of those removed from the country since 2008 had been convicted of major crimes. Most of the rest had either minor convictions on their records (punishable by less than a year in prison) or none at all.
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Something is very wrong with the administration’s approach. It has stressed its muscular enforcement efforts, which include a record number of apprehensions along the Mexican border, as evidence of the president’s toughness. The hope was to persuade reluctant Republicans to support a sweeping overhaul of immigration policy, including a pathway to citizenship for long-term illegal immigrants who held jobs, paid fines and proved they were law-abiding residents.
That strategy has failed. GOP lawmakers, beholden to the most xenophobic elements of the party’s base, have barely budged on immigration. Rather than crediting the administration for its strictness, they have accused Mr. Obama of selective enforcement for having exempted from deportation most young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents, the so-called “dreamers.”
In fact, all law enforcement involves setting priorities. Even most Republicans acknowledge that deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom are employed and have been present in this country for a decade or more, is fantasy. Yet even as Mr. Obama’s approach has broken up countless families with deep roots in the United States, it has been politically fruitless.
Given the human costs, what is the point of maintaining such a rigid policy, especially one at odds with the president’s stated goals? In particular, why continue to expend scarce law enforcement resources on deporting undocumented immigrants with no criminal records or whose offenses involve loitering or minor traffic violations?
Under pressure from immigrant advocacy groups, which have taken to referring to the president as the “deporter in chief,” Mr. Obama has ordered a review of deportation policy. Any shift toward leniency will prompt more cries of selective enforcement from Republicans. Yet it is the GOP that has helped create and sustain the crisis in immigration policy by refusing, year after year, any reasonable reform. Such reform would recognize America’s need for a steady supply of low-skilled labor and for some sustainable status for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are ineluctable parts of U.S. communities.