It may not rank high in polls of voters' priorities compared to jobs and the economy, yet immigration has taken on a central role in the 2012 presidential campaign drama.
Republican presidential debates have been a contest to see who can sound more ferocious toward illegal immigrants. But President Barack Obama can't afford to enjoy watching his adversaries destroy one another. He's catching heat from his own base, especially Hispanic voters, for being more punitive than he needs to be.
As a candidate, Obama promised to fix the nation's immigration system with comprehensive reform -- a mixture of, say, secure borders and employer sanctions with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who properly earn it.
But as president, facing fiercely uncooperative congressional Republicans, he has contented himself with a numbers game, racking up record numbers of detentions and deportations.
Since Obama took office, detentions and deportations have totaled more than 1 million, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That's rapidly approaching the 1.57 million that President George W. Bush deported in two terms.
In the previous decade, detentions and deportations have almost doubled, DHS says in its latest annual report, to almost 400,000 undocumented immigrants in the fiscal year that just ended from 209,000 in 2001.
Unfortunately, with that increase in detentions and deportations there's an increase in forced family separations, a rise in complaints of sexual assaults and other brutality in detention centers and a sharp uptick of outrage from Hispanic voters, including supporters who wanted to believe Obama's promises to fix the broken immigration system.
Even though the president's stated policy gives priority to murderers, sex offenders, drug traffickers and other hardened criminals, DHS figures show even more have been detained whose only known crime was their illegal status.
The latest annual DHS report says more than half of all immigrant detainees in the fiscal year 2010 had no criminal records. (Of 387,242 total detainees who were deported, only 168,532 were convicted criminals.) Of those with any criminal history, almost 20 percent merely had traffic offenses.
One disappointed Obama supporter, Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the policy of locking up thousands of men and women whose only crime was their illegal status "shameful."
"The deportation policy over the past two years has succeeded in criminalizing hardworking people," she said in a telephone interview. "This policy, as my mother used to say in Cuba, has a first and last name -- and it is Barack Obama."
Although many Hispanic voters think voting Republican would be "out of the frying pan and into the fire," as pollster Gary Segura of Latino Decisions said in a recent PBS "Frontline" documentary on immigrant detentions, their disaffection could hurt Obama's re-election.
"He got about 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2008," Segura said "But the percentage of Latinos saying that they're certain to vote for the president for re-election hovers in the mid-40s."
Politics aside, could Obama handle detentions and deportations in a better way? Yes, say immigration lawyers who point out a list of alternatives available that don't require congressional approval.
They include prosecutorial discretion and several forms of temporary and humanitarian relief that can be awarded to individuals or groups that can restore some semblance of due process to a system that deprives detainees of almost all rights they would have had if they had been officially arrested and charged.
It's hard to believe that Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer and grass-roots community organizer, would not be aware of these alternatives. Instead, with hostile Republicans in Congress giving him the border blues, he has chosen to look tough -- even if it causes new problems for thousands of families on top of those he is trying to solve.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage
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