It looks like the slim prospects for passing immigration reform this year just got slimmer. On Thursday, 22 Senate Republicans released a letter excoriating Obama for what they view as his lax enforcement of existing immigration policies—and expressing “grave concern” over an ongoing review that may culminate in the administration altering deportation priorities through executive action. “According to reports, the changes under consideration would represent a near complete abandonment of basic immigration enforcement and discard the rule of law and the notion that the United States has enforceable borders,” reads the letter, which was signed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, among others.
Though a comprehensive immigration reform bill has been collecting dust in the House of Representatives for almost a year (a similar proposal passed the Senate last June, though only two of the letters’ signatories voted for it), Greg Sargent at The Washington Post wrote this week that “White House officials appear persuaded that there is still an outside chance for action from House Republicans after the primaries are over and before the August recess.” But that won’t happen unless Republican leaders put pressure on rank and file members, who oppose reform out of principle or fear of Tea Party reprisals. And the letter betrays no signs that leadership is prepared to do that (though it could just be posturing or a play for political cover). On the contrary, the letter is full of language that sounds like a Fox News segment, warning darkly that the president lacks the authority to “nullify” acts of Congress and must “faithfully execute” the laws.
One impetus for the letter may have been a report in the Associated Press Monday that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson could recommend that Obama stop prioritizing the deportation of “repeat immigration violators”—for example, people who have been deported before. As I wrote earlier this week, these “repeat entries” have been targeted because the government feared leaving them alone would threaten the integrity of the immigration system, but the policy has proved one of the most destructive to families with deep roots in the States. Either way, the change would be more modest compromise than radical shift: Of the almost 400,000 people the administration deports each year, this “could shield tens of thousands,” the AP wrote, but “would fall short of deportation curbs demanded by activists.”
Of course, Republicans have been making these criticisms of Obama for years. And the line of attack is particularly ironic given that immigrant-rights advocates accuse the president of deploying the enforcement system more harshly than any of his predecessors. I’ve written about this paradox more in-depth here. The upshot is that if you count all deportations, including those of people informally bused back over the border, Obama’s numbers are low—in large part because far fewer people are making the crossing illegally these days. But if you look only at formal “removals”—which advocates say matter more, because they carry the life-long consequence of making it much harder to enter the country legally—Obama’s numbers are much higher than Bush’s were. The letter’s claim that Obama’s “policies have operated as an effective repeal of duly enacted federal immigration law” is absolutely not true.
The Republicans’ complaint hinges on Obama’s introduction of immigration priorities: In 2013, all but roughly 10,000 of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) deportations were of convicted criminals, repeat immigration offenders, or people who were picked up shortly after crossing the border. There is no question that Obama’s decision to set priorities was legal. Though the wisdom of the priorities themselves has been debated—and that’s why they’re currently under review—it seems straightforward that it makes sense to have them. As former ICE director John Morton told ProPublica in 2010: “Congress provides enough money to deport a little less than 400,000 people and in an era of limited resources, who should those 400,000 be? My perspective is those 400,000 people shouldn't be the first 400,000 people in the door but rather 400,000 people that reflect some considered government enforcement policy that is based on a rational set of objectives and priorities.”
Republicans aren’t wrong that Obama’s policies have created a reality in which certain people are unlikely to face deportation, because they don’t fall into groups that the administration is making enforcement priorities. (Many of the other claims in the letter, on the other hand—such as the implication that not deporting every undocumented resident is equivalent to releasing “dangerous offenders…back onto the streets”—are complete hogwash.) But deporting the roughly 11.5 million people who are here illegally isn’t a viable alternative. The government doesn’t have the money. More enforcement can’t get us out of this mess. Only legislative reform can.