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Undocumented immigrants wait at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility in Broadview, Ill., before being transported to the airport for a deportation flight.
Undocumented immigrants wait at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility in Broadview, Ill., before being transported to the airport for a deportation flight. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Even as it challenges Arizona's get-tough approach to illegal immigration, the Obama administration has been waging a crackdown of its own. The federal government is quietly deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and scrutinizing hundreds of employers suspected of hiring them.
President Obama told an audience at American University this month that's while it's not possible to round up and deport all the illegal immigrants in the United States, his administration won't turn a blind eye to those who entered this country illegally.
"No matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable," Obama said.
In fact, the federal government under President Obama has steadily increased the deportation of illegal immigrants. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency says it's on track to expel some 400,000 people this year, 8 percent more than 2008 — the last year of the Bush administration.
In addition to deporting more immigrants, ICE is increasingly targeting those who've also broken other laws.
"More and more of the people we're removing are criminal aliens," said ICE spokesman Richard Rocha. "So that means they've been convicted of some sort of crime."
Identifying Those Who Break Other Laws
The government is expanding a program called Secure Communities, now in use in about 450 cities. Rocha says police in those communities now match the fingerprints of everyone they arrest against a federal immigration database.
"With that information, we've been able to accurately identify who someone is, and we're able to prioritize them, depending on the types of crimes they've committed — and remove them," Rocha said.
The agency says 50 percent of the immigrants deported this year had some kind of criminal record. That's up from about 30 percent two years ago. But immigrant rights advocates complain the government doesn't provide a breakdown of what those crimes are.
"It's almost become the broken taillight syndrome," said Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza. "People may be stopped because they have a broken taillight or something similar, and then they end up getting caught up in this immigration dragnet."
Martinez adds that by using local police to identify illegal immigrants, the federal government may discourage immigrants from cooperating with local law enforcement. Obama leveled that same criticism against the new Arizona law.
'Enforcement, Enforcement, Enforcement'
The Obama administration is also targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants. But instead of conducting a few high-profile raids and hauling workers away in handcuffs, the government is auditing the working papers filed at hundreds more companies. And there's been a nearly six-fold increase in the past two years in employer fines.
Immigration Crackdown: Key Numbers
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it's on track to expel some 400,000 people in fiscal year 2010. (The FY10 numbers below reflect through June 7). But instead of conducting a few high-profile raids, the government is auditing the working papers filed at hundreds more companies. And ICE is increasingly targeting those who have also broken other laws.
*The FY10 numbers are through June 7, 2010.
"Ultimately, if the demand for undocumented workers falls, the incentive for people to come here illegally will decline as well," Obama said this month.
The approach has drawn criticism from those who support a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
"Enforcement, in and of itself, will not end illegal immigration as we know it," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). "But this administration has been about enforcement, enforcement, enforcement, enforcement."
Gutierrez suspects the administration is trying to earn credibility with hard-core opponents of illegal immigration in hopes they'll come around to supporting compromise legislation. So far, though, not one Republican senator has come out in favor of a comprehensive approach. And Gutierrez thinks stronger enforcement is the wrong way to win them over.
"You can close down that border between the United States and Mexico, you can put piranhas in the water, you can electrify the fence, you can put a National Guardsman every three to four feet," Gutierrez said. "And you want to know something? You still won't bring about the reform of our immigration system. They don't care."
In other words, immigration is becoming one more issue on which President Obama's effort to find the middle ground has meant taking fire from all sides.