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CEPEDA: Low marks on immigration

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

While headlines distract us with the latest battles in various states over immigration, we should be checking in with what’s going on at the federal level. And what better time than the run-up to the 2012 presidential election?

The Immigration Policy Center, an immigrant-friendly think tank, just released its “DHS Progress Report: An Analysis of Immigration Policy in the Second Year of the Obama Administration.” The group’s main beef with the Department of Homeland Security is that it has fallen down on its mandate to institute better prioritization, transparency and coordination among its three immigration arms — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

This progress report did highlight positives, mostly centering around opened lines of communication with both advocacy groups and the public, the launch of an online detainee locator system and improvements in programs such as E-Verify, which has been dogged by concerns about not detecting identity fraud, not addressing employer noncompliance, and erroneously failing to confirm some legal workers.

But those bright spots are overshadowed by numerous examples of mismanagement, differing approaches and a total lack of coordination that, the authors say, have led to uneven and inconsistent application of information-sharing practices — defying many of the Obama administration’s directives to cut red tape and provide the public easy access to information. Worse, these shortcomings are often blamed on the long wait for comprehensive immigration reform even though not all changes to make the system work more efficiently require legislative action.

For instance, prioritization of violent or criminal illegal immigrants for deportation has not happened. Instead, DHS routinely pats ICE on the back for its record-breaking number of removals in 2010 even though many of the approximately 400,000 aliens sent home did not fit into the ICE-established priority categories. This is bad for the agencies’ credibility — even those who would like to see illegal immigrants deported in every case should agree that these agencies’ resources should be spent on those who pose the greatest threats.

The controversial Secure Communities program is described as intentionally operating “behind a veil of bureaucracy and secrecy, generating serious questions about who will really be targeted and whether and how localities can decline to participate in the program” — a concern law enforcement groups have consistently voiced.

Business gets the short end of the stick in two ways: While ICE workplace enforcement priorities shifted to the use of audits to target crucial infrastructure and prosecute employers for flagrant violations, many of the employers audited didn’t fit this profile. And CBP, the report says, remains largely closed to public scrutiny and shares information in limited fashion, and then only following a Freedom of Information Act fight. This is why it’s hard to understand why CBP has quietly but rapidly expanded its role of enforcer at all points of entry into the United States.

In describing this emerging issue, co-author Michele Waslin noted at a recent news conference that “officers who are not trained in the complexities of visa requirements are increasingly probing business travelers beyond admissibility and instead, re-examining their underlying visa eligibility, asking questions that travelers wouldn't necessarily know the answer to and had already been settled by other agencies.”

Her example supports the report's claim of a lack of coordination and that DHS and its immigration agencies frequently work at cross-purposes. This is the dysfunction that occurs when an agency is forced to perform highly politicized work with no presidential or congressional leadership in sight. And voters have started to take notice.

Those passionate about immigration are beginning to not take it for granted that four more years of a Democrat in the White House will yield the business- and family-friendly reforms they've been waiting for. In fact, some voters who did not list immigration reform as a top concern going into the last presidential election have starting rethinking their priorities. A February impreMedia poll of Latinos found that immigration is now in the “most important issue” slot, followed by the economy, education and health.

More and more I’m hearing people pointing to the current administration’s inaction in the same breath as the observation that the last time meaningful reform proposals were floated, they were championed by a Republican president. And the situation keeps getting more fluid. The Obama administration would do well to take heed.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at ejc@estherjcepeda.com.