It may not rank highly in polls of voters’ priorities compared to the jobs and the economy, yet immigration has taken on a central role in the 2012 presidential campaign drama.

Republican presidential debates have been a contest to see who can sound more ferocious toward illegal immigrants. But President Barack Obama can’t afford to enjoy watching his adversaries destroy one another. He’s catching heat from his own base, especially Hispanic voters, for being more punitive than he needs to be.

As a candidate, Obama promised to fix the nation’s immigration system with comprehensive reform — a mixture of, say, secure borders and employer sanctions with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who properly earn it.

However, as president, facing a fiercely uncooperative congressional Republicans, he has contented himself with a numbers game, racking up record numbers of detentions and deportations.

Since Obama took office, detentions and deportations have totaled more than a million, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That’s rapidly approaching the 1.57 million that President George W. Bush deported in two terms.

In the past decade, detentions and deportations have almost doubled, DHS says in its latest annual report, from 209,000 undocumented immigrants in 2001 to almost 400,000 in the fiscal year that just ended.

Unfortunately, with that increase in detentions and deportations there also have come an increase in forced family separations, a rise in complaints of sexual assault and other brutality in detention centers, and a sharp uptick of outrage from Hispanic voters, including supporters who wanted to believe Obama’s promises to fix the broken immigration system.

Even though the president’s stated deportation policy gives priority to murderers, sex offenders, drug traffickers and other hardened criminals, DHS figures show even more have been detained whose only known crime was their illegal status.

The latest annual DHS report says more than half of all immigrant detainees in the fiscal year 2010 had no criminal records. (Of 387,242 total detainees who were deported, only 168,532 were convicted criminals.) Of those with any criminal history, almost 20 percent were merely for traffic offenses.

One disappointed Obama supporter, Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, called the policy “shameful” in locking up thousands of men and women whose only crime was their illegal status.

“The deportation policy over the past two years has succeeded in criminalizing hard-working people,” she said in a telephone interview. “This policy, as my mother used to say in Cuba, has a first and last name — and it is Barack Obama.”

Although many Hispanic voters think voting Republican would be “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” said pollster Gary Segura of Latino Decisions in a recent PBS Frontline documentary on immigrant detentions, their disaffection could hurt Obama’s election turnout enough to make a difference in closely contested states.

“He got about 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2008,” Segura said. “But the percentage of Latinos saying that they’re certain to vote for the president for reelection hovers in the mid-40s.”

Politics aside, could Obama handle detentions and deportations in a better way? Yes, say immigration lawyers, who point out a list of alternatives available for a president that don’t require congressional approval.

They include prosecutorial discretion and several forms of temporary and humanitarian relief that can be awarded to individuals or groups that can restore some semblance of due process to a system that deprives detainees of almost all rights that those who are officially arrested and charged would have.

It’s hard to believe that President Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer and grassroots community organizer, would not be aware of these alternatives. Instead, with hostile Republicans in Congress giving him the border blues, he has chosen to look tough — even if it causes new problems for thousands of families on top of the rest of the problems he is trying to solve.

 

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.

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