The president wanted "comprehensive immigration reform", including the legalization of 11.7 million illegal aliens. However, he was stuck because of the public's deep skepticism about government's ability and willingness to be serious about immigration enforcement. He therefore had to demonstrate that the public could trust him.
The president and his advisors hit on what they thought was a shrewd strategy to accomplish this goal. They would argue that because of budgetary constraints, the administration had been forced to set priorities and institute limits. That required them to concentrate their limited resources by focusing their enforcement efforts on America's most dangerous illegal aliens.
One of the ironies of the president's immigration dilemma is that the very figures that he used to shape public perceptions of his enforcement seriousness wound up undermining him. At first glace, the strategy of focusing on the most serious criminal aliens made sense. Who could disagree? Lost sight of in the easy agreement on deporting the most serious criminal offenders was this question: What to do about the millions of illegal aliens who weren't murders or sexual predators?
One difficulty that quickly developed in the administration's clever plan was that that the number of murderers, sexual offenders, large-scale drug dealers, and other major felony offenders that were caught, convicted, and deported accounted for a relatively small share of the overall deportation figures. Or as the Wall Street Journal put it, "In an attempt to cast itself as tough on enforcement to win congressional support for an immigration overhaul, the Obama administration touted the program as a deterrent to future illegal immigration and a key to ridding the country of serious felons. But the vast majority of those being deported aren't serious felons, according to independent analyses."
Many illegal aliens caught up in the deportation process had committed less dire, but still criminal offenses. And others had committed the non-violent, but still serious misdemeanor (punishable by up to six months in prison) offense of >crossing the border illegally (improper entry).
Somewhat ironically for the president, however, the deportation of any but the most violent illegal criminal aliens caused great distress among the very Spanish-background supporters that the president was counting on for electoral gratitude after he had legalized the country's 11-12 million illegal aliens.
The reasons for their consternation, concern, and disappointment were not hard to understand. The deportees are overwhelmingly friends, acquaintances, relatives, family members and fellow "Hispanics".
According to a 2011 Pew study, "More than eight-in-ten (81%) of the nation's estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants are of Hispanic origin..." Moreover, "Hispanics accounted for an even larger share of deportees in 2010 -- 97%."
The title of the Pew study, "As Deportations Rise to Record Levels, Most Latinos Oppose Obama's Policy", clearly reflected the president's closing window to square the circle of public skepticism, administration enforcement legitimacy, and rising Hispanic disapproval. According to the Pew study, "By a ratio of more than two-to-one (59% versus 27%), Latinos disapprove of the way the Obama administration is handling deportations of unauthorized immigrants."
The president could have tried to essentially halt deportations, but that would have destroyed his enforcement credibility. He could have used his political capital to try and push though an immigration bill before the 2012 presidential campaign. That however, would have required to him to campaign for reelection on the basis of controversial legislation that would legalize between 11 and 12 million illegal aliens.
What then to do?
Define immigration enforcement down.
Next: Defining Immigration Enforcement Down