Under pressure to carve out more humane deportation practices without tearing families apart, the Obama administration is reviewing its immigration policies as reform efforts sputter in Congress. But Senate Republicans are raising “grave concerns” that such changes would “represent a near complete abandonment of basic immigration enforcement” and accusing President Obama of overstepping his constitutional powers to the point of threatening the entire system.
In a letter to the president dated Thursday, a team of 22 Republican senators accused the administration of consistently weakening immigration enforcement ever since Obama assumed office in 2009. With several top Republicans signed on – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee – the three-page letter pounds a familiar right-wing drumbeat against threats the president will flex his executive powers on immigration.
“Our entire constitutional system is threatened when the executive branch suspends the law at its whim and our nation’s sovereignty is imperiled when the commander-in-chief refuses to defend the integrity of its borders,” the GOP signers wrote.
None of the conservatives joined in the letter are a part of the Senate’s Gang of Eight – the architects of the bipartisan immigration reform deal that passed through the Senate last year. House Republicans have since tabled the issue, and it’s increasingly unlikely they will pass immigration reforms anytime soon.
Immigration activists for their part have effectively pronounced reforms as dead in Congress and are urging the president to circumvent inaction on Capitol Hill through executive action. Though the administration has not released details outlining policy changes, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to unveil a plan to curb deportations of immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally and have no criminal record.
In their letter, the Republicans argue “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 as enforceable borders.”
The political dynamics are a tightrope walk between Democrats pressing to change how the U.S. handles deportations and Republicans who don’t trust that President Obama will enforce any laws Congress passes. Meanwhile, regions across the country aren’t waiting around for a deal.
Retaliating against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “Secure Communities” policy to aggressively target immigrants with criminal records, states said they would no longer blindly hold immigrants for deportation purely based on ICE requests. Governors in California and Connecticut defied federal policies by restricting local law enforcement’s cooperation with deportation authorities.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley last week announced that the Baltimore City Detention Center would resist ICE requests to hold people longer than they need. In Philadelphia, federal agents must provide criminal warrants in order for local law enforcement to hold and detain people. Meanwhile, a federal judge ruling in Oregon found that one woman’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was held in jail for extra time while the feds checked her residency status. The decision triggered more than a dozen sheriffs in the region to relax rules on holding people for immigration agents to come.
The Obama administration has already begun easing back on the gas pedal with the number of deportation cases making their way through the courts. The Justice Department opened far fewer deportation cases against people last five years, down 43%.