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'Rogue' DHS unions follow Obama's lead on deportation

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
May 22, 2013 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
ICE security contractors prepare to deport Honduran immigration detainees in Mesa, Arizona, early this year
ICE security contractors prepare to deport Honduran immigration detainees in Mesa, Arizona, early this year
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Two DHS unions now publicly oppose proposed immigration reform
  • He says this "rogue-ish" behavior awkward for President Obama, who supports reform bill
  • Obama turned blind eye to zealous deportation, even when it flouted Morton Memo, he says
  • Navarrette: Deportation-happy ICE officials no more "rogue" than the president's policies

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Welcome to the chaotic Department of Homeland Security.

Two unions -- representing nearly 20,000 DHS employees -- recently joined forces to publicly oppose the Senate immigration reform bill from the so-called "Gang of Eight."

News: Senate Judiciary Committee approves immigration legislation

The coalition represents 12,000 employees who are responsible for issuing documents that allow some immigrants to legally stay in the United States and 7,700 agents charged with deporting illegal immigrants out of the country. Together, the unions claim that the bill would weaken public safety.

What makes this situation awkward is that President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have given tacit support to the Senate immigration reform bill. Obama has said that a pathway to citizenship must be included in any reform proposal. And as recently as last month, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that White House staffers had months ago huddled with the eight senators to help draft the legislation.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

As an additional wrinkle, many of these DHS employees who oppose the bill would be charged with helping to implement it, either by reviewing the applications of undocumented immigrants who would be seeking legal status or deporting those who didn't qualify for it. How that will ultimately work out is anyone's guess.

Some of this sounds familiar. Before the unions took on the Senate bill, they launched a rebellion closer to home.

In June 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton fired off an internal memorandum -- the "Morton memo," as it became known -- to all directors, agents and general counsel in the agency's field offices.

In the memo, Morton advised the field personnel that they "may" exercise discretion and show leniency toward some illegal immigrants by weighing certain factors. They included the length of time the person had lived in the United States, whether the person arrived as a child, whether the person was pursuing an education, etc.

The Morton memo was heralded by immigration reform advocates as a major breakthrough. And yet, how did some in the field respond to the memo?

According to more than a dozen immigration attorneys I interviewed back then and many others I saw quoted elsewhere, they ignored it. You had rampant insubordination. And neither Morton nor his higher-ups, i.e. Napolitano and Obama, did anything to bring people back in line.

I suspect that the reason for this hands-off approach was that the ICE agents, by racking up deportations, were helping the administration meet its goal of deporting people -- which it has done at a rate of more than 1,000 per day. The high numbers were necessary so that the administration could portray itself to Congress and the American people as tough on immigration enforcement.

In October 2011, just four months after the Morton memo was issued, Napolitano delivered a speech at American University in which she boasted that the Department of Homeland Security was on track to set a new record for deportations in the 2011 fiscal year. It did. And in fiscal 2012, it broke that record again. At this rate, by the end of 2013, the administration will have deported 2 million people.

Those figures make the claims of Chris Crane, the head of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council (the 7,700-member deportation agents' union), all the more ridiculous. Crane told the New York Times: "This department under this administration is doing anything and everything they can not to arrest any alien in the interior of the United States."

Crane should tell that to 10-year-old Stephanie Pucheta who, next month, will be spending Father's Day without her father, Julio Cesar Pucheta, who was deported in January.

In a video testimonial on behalf of the immigrant advocacy group Cuentame, the U.S.-born Stephanie explains how -- when a judge ordered her father removed from the country -- she couldn't stop crying.

She goes on to say: "My life has changed without my father. Since he's been gone, I miss him every day. Every morning when I wake up, I wonder why they didn't let him stay here. Why do they have to be so cruel to the families that are here?"

That's a really good question. This administration has been excessively cruel to illegal immigrants and their families. And, worse, it hasn't been willing to confess to the crime. Instead, it has led us to believe that its record number of deportations are partly the result of low-level agents and their supervisors going rogue and refusing to use discretion to the point where some of those being deported shouldn't be.

Is that really what's happening?

Napolitano has said all along she wants to remove illegal immigrants, more and more every year. That's what the low-level ICE agents were doing. So maybe they weren't being disobedient. Maybe, in trying to be both tough and compassionate, the entire administration is being duplicitous.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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