As the Bush administration winds down and the Obama administration ramps up, immigration policy is right where it was at the start of the Bush administration: an unfulfilled promise, many Hispanic advocacy groups and immigration policy researchers say.
“It’s been disappointing,” says Dr. Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst with the Immigration Policy Center. “President Bush had spoken very strongly about the need for immigration reform. He came from Texas. He really understood the need for immigration reform. But, unfortunately, that fell apart in Congress.’
The failure to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the spring of 2007 is atop most advocates’ minds as they prepare for a new administration that has made the same campaign vow: to pass an immigration bill to help many of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country earn a path to legal status.
Many acknowledge it will be difficult for Obama to achieve — even more so as he grapples with the nation’s crumbling economy — but they plan to demand it anyway.
A coalition of immigrant advocates called the Fair Immigration Reform Movement is already planning a mass demonstration on the mall on Obama’s second day in office, Jan. 21.
As the groups look ahead to the next administration, the current one is touting what it believes have been signs of success in its approach to immigration: in enforcement as well as naturalizations.
Since a far-reaching immigration bill failed to clear Congress last year, the Bush administration posted record numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants: almost 290,000 in the 2007 budget year and 350,000 more in the budget year that ended in September.
“We are seeing the kinds of results that the country hasn’t seen for many years,” Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Homeland Security secretary, said in a speech last month.
He quickly added that tough enforcement of immigration laws must continue before a comprehensive immigration bill could gain public support.
“It is my conviction that if we do that, there will come a time in the near future where the American public will finally say, ‘OK, we trusted the government to control immigration,’” Chertoff said. “’Now we are prepared to open the door to more legal immigration or to more legal temporary workers.’”
On the immigrant services side, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services completed more than 1.17 million naturalization applications in the 2008 budget year — after averaging just below 600,000 a year in prior years of the Bush administration.
“Our (enforcement) numbers are up and indicators of illegal immigration are apparently down, according to the department statistics and recent studies,” says Pat Riley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “So we see that as an indication that what we are doing is working.”
Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, says while it does appear that the flow of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States appears to have slowed, it may have more to do with the bad economy rather than tougher enforcement.
“It coincides with stepped-up enforcement and it coincides with a rotten economy,” Passel says. “I’m not sure it’s theoretically possible to know what is caused by the economy and what is caused by enforcement. There was about a 30 percent drop in the number of illegals coming into the country between 2001 and 2002. It seems to be highly related to the economic conditions.”
Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials Educational Fund, applauded the Bush administration efforts in processing more than a million citizenship applications in the past budget year.
Applications soared early last year amid the rancorous immigration reform debate and unprecedented campaigns among immigrant advocacy groups and Spanish-language TV networks to promote citizenship. To top it off, many sought to file applications before a mid-2007 increase in immigration fees. Some of the fees doubled. Gold says it now takes $675 to get a naturalization application started — a 69 percent increase.
“We’re very glad to see the progress the administration made in dealing with the dramatic increase of applications that occurred due to Fiscal 2007,” Gold says. “We were very glad to see they were able to make sure so many people were naturalized.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported reducing naturalization processing times to nine to 10 months, on average, from the 16- to 18-month average processing times that applicants saw in the fall of 2007.
The agency hired 1,600 new adjudication officers in the past budget year to deal with the onslaught of applications. They also worked with the FBI to tackle a big backlog in the FBI’s name-check process that verifies there is no negative information on citizenship applicants.
In the fall of last year, there were 350,000 applicants in the name-check backlog. Now, that number is down to 37,000.
Gold said there are still issues that she hopes the Obama administration will address in the agency.
Some immigration offices — in North Carolina and South Carolina, for instance — still face 14- to 15-month processing periods, even though the national average has decreased.
Gold says the agency needs to make management changes to address the deeper backlogs in some offices. She also says that the immigration services agency, which is now completely funded by fees paid by the immigrants, should also receive money from Congress to purchase better technology, which will help reduce caseloads.
Several Hispanic and immigration policy groups challenge the notion of success that the Bush administration sees in its enforcement numbers, particularly when it comes to beefed-up, high-profile workplace raids.
They predict that President-Elect Barack Obama — who won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in the Nov. 4 election — there will be continued enforcement, but with a different focus.
“Only a very small part of the 350,000 (deportations) was caused by the very high-profile and, I’d argue, harmful worksite raids that occurred throughout the country,” says Don Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “Probably one thing you’ll see less focus on are those kinds of dramatic raids that entail criminal prosecutions of large numbers of workers.
Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, notes that President George W. Bush had promised the same thing, but didn’t keep it.
“The problem with Mr. Bush is that when he decided to make a push for immigration reform, it was too little, too late,” Martinez says. “Even though there were attempts to craft bipartisan legislation, he wasn’t able to muster members of his party to come on board. More than anything that we’ve seen during these eight years, a potential legacy he was building — which was, really to expand the tent of the Republican Party and to bring in greater Latino support for that party — has been deeply eroded.’’
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