On June 7, the Republican-controlled House approved amendments to a bill that would forbid the Obama administration from carrying out promised modifications of its immigration enforcement regime, by defunding such efforts. The purpose is to cripple some key programs that were intended to respond to demands of the immigrant rights movement.
Two of the programs that the Republicans would defund are the "prosecutorial discretion" initiative, and a new family unity program that would allow undocumented immigrants who marry U.S. citizens to get permanent legal resident status without being forced to return to their lands of birth for a wait of up to ten years.
The prosecutorial discretion initiative, outlined in two memoranda by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, instructs the Department of Homeland Security to review the cases of some 300,000 people currently in the deportation process and proceed to full deportation only in those cases in which the individual has been convicted of serious crimes or represents a danger to the community.
The cases of the rest were supposed to be provisionally closed; that is, for now deportation proceedings are to be stopped and the person in question provisionally allowed to stay in the United States. Potentially helped would be the majority of young people brought here without papers as minors and thus eligible for the DREAM Act, undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children, and people who had lived in the United States without papers for extended periods of time without getting involved in any criminal activities. This program would eventually cover people newly arrested by immigration authorities as well.
Unfortunately, so far the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in charge of reviewing these cases, is interpreting its instructions so narrowly that only a very small number (7.16 percent so far) of cases reviewed are seeing their deportation orders cancelled. This has caused great dissatisfaction in the immigrants' rights movement.
Nevertheless, the Republicans in the House decided that the prosecutorial discretion program, limited as it is, should be sabotaged by cutting off its funding. An amendment to that effect was added to the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. This amendment passed by a vote of 238-135, with 18 not voting. Two hundred and twenty eight Republicans voted "yes," as well as 10 mostly Blue Dog Democrats. Four Republicans and 131 Democrats voted "no."
A second Obama administration initiative would allow undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens to legalize themselves by applying for a legal immigrant visa while living in the United States, only going to their native countries to pick up the visa when it was already granted. Previously, they had to go there at the beginning of the application process, and then would be barred from returning to the United States for from 3 to 10 years, in conformity with the 1996 "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act" (IIRAIRA). The new policy, not yet in force, would save thousands of families from breakup.
However, the House Republicans also voted to sabotage that modest step in the direction of a humane immigration policy: An amendment by Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) cut off all funds to implement this policy; it passed by a voice vote.
Further amendments offered by right-wing lawmakers prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions for undocumented immigrants, and de-funded a position of advocate of immigrant interests which the Obama administration had created. Progressive amendments offered by Democrats were swatted down.
The reader can examine the vote of his or her own representative on a useful website set up by the Library of Congress. The number of the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill is HR 5855.
The cuts and prohibitions in the Republican amendments will probably not pass muster in the Democratic controlled Senate, and would not take effect until the beginning of the 2013 Federal Fiscal Year starting October 1, 2012. But they demonstrate that inaction on immigration reform plays into the hands of the anti-immigrant right. Undocumented immigrants can not, of course, vote, but studies have shown that a large proportion of Latino citizens and voters are touched by the issue, because many have close relatives (even within the same household), friends, neighbors and coworkers who are undocumented, or who have been deported or are currently threatened with deportation.
It is extremely unlikely that given this mean-spirited action by the House GOP and other attacks on immigrants by the Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Latino voters will swivel over to the GOP in November. However, frustration with the lack of progress on this issue under the Obama administration could discourage these voters, and thus suppress turnout.
By this action, the GOP shows its true face on immigration affairs, and undercuts its own efforts to give itself a more "immigrant friendly" visage. The actions in the House say to many immigrants that what little they have gained in the last four years will be taken away from them should the Republicans win in November.