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updated: 2/14/2011 11:27 AM

On immigration, actions louder than words

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In the last presidential election, Barack Obama marketed himself to Latino voters as a kinder and gentler response to the immigration policies of George W. Bush.

For example, Obama was on his high horse in July 2008 when he schmoozed the National Council of La Raza at its annual conference. He told the group that things had gone astray under Bush "when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing."

Latinos fell for the sales pitch, handing over two-thirds of their votes to Obama even though he had a history of showing little interest in their concerns.

Now many Latinos feel suckered. An Associated Press-Univision poll of more than 1,500 Hispanics in July found that only 43 percent said Obama was adequately addressing issues that matter to them, including immigration reform.

And the problem is not just that Obama broke his promise to make immigration reform a top priority in his first term. From what I'm hearing, what really concerns many Latinos is that Obama is moving in the opposite direction.

Look at the area of immigration enforcement, which this administration has approached with the finesse and sensitivity of Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Not only has the Department of Homeland Security -- and specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- deported 779,000 illegal immigrants in the last two years, but Secretary Janet Napolitano has a crass habit of bragging about this accomplishment to silence her conservative critics.

Recently, Napolitano repeated the boast during a speech in El Paso, where she assured the audience that the administration had removed more illegal immigrants "than ever before."

Her assertion is not quite right but close enough for government work. The deportation king is still President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration deported in 1954 about 1 million people -- including many Latinos who were U.S. citizens -- as part of a sweep with the ugly name of "Operation Wetback."

Still, removing nearly 800,000 illegal immigrants in two years is a modern-day record, and it's a statistic the administration is obviously very proud of.

What Napolitano doesn't mention is that one of the major reasons that ICE has been able to rack up such high numbers of deportations is because it has the force multiplier of the 287(g) program working on its behalf. That initiative essentially deputizes local police to enforce federal immigration law, and so it's a great help to ICE.

Unfortunately for the agency, the program also remains controversial. Recently, an independent think tank issued a report that found the program isn't being implemented as it was intended and that local police are taking into custody even those illegal immigrants who have committed minor offenses.

You can still find Latino Democrats who will make excuses for the administration. Some claim that Obama is trying to inoculate himself from Republican accusations that he is soft on border security. Others think he is shrewdly laying the groundwork so he can push for immigration reform down the road.

But let's not forget that there is a third possibility. I've come to the conclusion that Obama sees an intrinsic value in taking a hard line on immigration enforcement because -- like many Democrats from blue-collar and industrial states -- he believes that excessive levels of immigration hurt U.S. workers and that it's his responsibility to protect American jobs.

This kind of protection is misguided. You don't help people by shielding them from competition. You only make them soft and foster a sense of entitlement.

Meanwhile, most of the Latinos I hear from no longer think Obama is entitled to their support. They aren't particularly proud of the administration's record on immigration, and they won't defend it. In fact, many of them are concerned. Some are angry. They say they would prefer that Obama concentrate his efforts on fashioning an immigration reform plan that allows hardworking illegal immigrants to stay in the United States instead of trying to remove as many of them as possible.

Ironically, a few months into his presidency, Obama named a point-person who was supposed to craft an immigration reform proposal. That person was Janet Napolitano.

I'm sure she'll get around to it one of these days. Like the rest of the Obama administration, she has other priorities.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

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