A Phony War on Deportation?

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Brennan Linsley / AP

President Barack Obama waves to a crowd gathered inside a hangar at the Muniz Air National Guard Base, shortly after his arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico

On June 14, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President in a half-century to make an official visit to Puerto Rico. It was an overture not just to the island's 3.7 million residents but also to the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living in the U.S., many of whom are eligible to vote. Most of those voters are unhappy with the President's immigration policies. Since 2009, nearly 1 million people have been deported from the U.S., including almost 400,000 in the past 12 months alone--and almost as many as during George W. Bush's entire second term. One reason for the rising total is Obama's Secure Communities program, a central tool for identifying undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.

In recent weeks, some states have attempted to extricate themselves from the controversial program. Democratic governors of three states with large Latino populations--Illinois, New York and Massachusetts--have announced plans to stop participating in Secure Communities. Opponents say the program raises the potential for ethnic profiling, inhibits prospective witnesses from stepping forward to report crimes and often ensnares the wrong people. Half of those deported because of Boston's Secure Communities program were later identified as noncriminals. "We run a serious risk," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said recently, of "fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities." While mending those rifts is crucial if Democrats hope to retain Hispanic votes next year, the states' decisions to opt out may have little practical effect. States cannot simply exit a federal program, and even those that don't like Secure Communities will continue to share data with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

If Democratic governors are fearful of the political consequences of alienating Latinos, the Obama Administration doesn't appear to be: about 156,000 people have been deported from January to May 2011, a slight increase from the same period last year. Obama said in El Paso, Texas, in May, "Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don't relish the pain that it causes." That's a pain he may not feel until 2012.