As Buffalo Springfield sang in the 60s, “there’s something happening here.” However, as murky as the 60s were, what is happening here is becoming increasingly clear- the administration is beginning to fight on immigration. As the election shifts into higher gears and the obstructionism of Congress becomes more and more pronounced, it seems fairly clear that the Obama administration has decided that now is the time to fight on immigration. The last six months have seen a flurry of positive developments from the administration in immigration and the need for the President to prove his immigration bona fides in this election year indicate that more is to come.
It is no secret that immigration advocates have been disappointed with the President. Many had very high hopes for the administration and hoped that the President would be a luminous flagbearer for comprehensive immigration reform. However, it appears that the adminsitration made an early miscalculation in believeing that the republicans in Congress could be counted on as good faith partners in immigration reform. The administration seemed to believe that if it could show that it was effective at enforcing the law and removing deportable individuals, Congress would flock to support sane immigration reform. That was not to be in a caucus that saw their role as to defeat anything Obama advocated rather than to support the development of sensible policy. Thus, comprehensive immigration reform was stillborn and the DREAM Act fell victim to the filibuster. In the meantime, Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program removed tens of thousands of small-time offenders, despite the promise of focus on the “worst of the worst.”
Over the last year, the President has demonstrated that the Congress is willing to risk armageddon rather than compromise on anything that the President seeks. Congressional hostage-taking and a challenging election have allowed the President to find his voice on immigration. In the past six months, the administration has unveiled three major initiatives that will have a profound positive effect on immigrant communities.
First, in June 2011, Immigration & Customs Enforcement issued new directives to agents in the field instructing them to be more aware of their duty to exercise discretion in enforcing the law more often and more favorably. This is a simple enough directive, as if a police lieutenant told officers to go after armed robbers over litterers when facing such a choice. In a world of limited resources, the adminsitration has told its agents, the focus should be on those who present a danger to our community or national security rather than peaceful immgrants who may have only entered illegally or overstayed visas. In response to critics who argued that ICE agents in the field routinely disregarded the orders of their superiors, ICE has attmepted to initiate a training for ICE agents. The ICE agents union’s foot-dragging and recalcitrance in completing this training demonstrates just how much of a change this approach is for ICE.
Second, just last week, the Citizenship & Immigration Service (CIS) announced that it would process certain waivers in the U.S., eliminating for some families the risk that they would proceed abroad to obtain a waiver and be separated from their families, communities and jobs for lengthy periods of time. This change has the potential to, in one fell swoop, allows tens of thousands of people to seek residence in the U.S. and to avoid the longterm social damages that follow when a member of a family or a valued employee is stuck outside the U.S. trying to process a visa and waiver.
Finally, the White House announced today that Cecilia Muñoz will be filling the position of Director of the Domestic Policy Council. In this position, Ms. Muñoz will coordinate the policy-making process and supervise the execution of domestic policy in the White House. This is a clear sign that the President intends to make immigration a priority as Ms. Muñoz has a long history of pro-immigrant advocacy as an immigration policy specialist at the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization. Although Ms. Muñoz got a lot of grief for defending the administration’s aggressive enforcement politicies on an episode of Frontline, Ms. Muñoz is a knowledgeable and compassionate voice for humane immigration reform. Her elevation to such an important post is a strong indication that the President intends to focus on immigration in the coming months and in the next term.
Cynics may say that this is simply election year posturing. That remains to be seen. Until then, we need to appreciate that these are concrete steps that are going to have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of immigrants and should be applauded and encouraged.