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posted: 7/19/2012 5:00 AM

Emanuel's about-face on immigration

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How's this for a role reversal?

When Rahm Emanuel was in Congress and later as White House chief of staff, he protected fellow Democrats by steering the party's agenda away from what he labeled the new "third rail" of American politics -- the emotional issue of immigration.

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But now that he is mayor of Chicago, Emanuel has a much different goal: to protect illegal immigrants in his city from a Democratic administration that is eager to deport them.

Although Emanuel blames Republicans in Congress for souring the country on immigrants, the truth is that -- in this standoff -- his new nemesis is his old boss: President Obama. It's the president who stands atop the executive branch, which is solely responsible for enforcing immigration law.

While Republicans accuse the Obama administration of not going far enough to stop illegal immigration, some Democrats have figured out the truth -- that, in trying to show how tough it can be, the administration is going way too far.

The White House is running a giant deportation machine at full throttle, and it's doing all this with the help of a controversial and flawed program known as Secure Communities. Under "S-Comm" -- as it is known by critics -- local and state police are roped into the enforcement of immigration law by having to submit to federal authorities the fingerprints of anyone they arrest who they suspect might be in the United States illegally.

This is a prescription for racial profiling. And, in fact, some critics of Secure Communities have alleged that this is exactly what is happening.

Emanuel doesn't want it to happen in Chicago. He recently announced that he plans to propose a local ordinance that would bar the city's police officers from turning over illegal immigrants to federal authorities unless the immigrants have serious criminal convictions or outstanding criminal warrants.

Emanuel is basically doubling down on what officials did last fall in Cook County, which includes Chicago. They passed an ordinance barring county police from detaining illegal immigrants in county jails before turning them over to federal agents -- unless the agents have a warrant for a specific individual.

"If you have no criminal record, being part of a community is not a problem for you," Emanuel told reporters at a news conference. "We want to welcome you to the city of Chicago."

A similar revolt is happening here in California, where lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature recently passed a bill called the Trust Act. Seeking to limit what supporters charge is an erosion of trust in law enforcement, it prohibits local police officers from referring individuals to immigration agents unless they've been convicted of serious felonies. It also forbids officers from detaining altogether those charged with minor offenses.

None of this is welcome news to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who, let's face it, might actually have to work harder if local and state police stop doing their jobs for them. Testifying recently before a House subcommittee, ICE Director John Morton described Cook County's ordinance as "inconsistent with the terms of federal law." He also said that the administration is discussing "legal options" against the county, and that it will likely lose federal funds that are intended to reimburse the county for incarcerating illegal immigrants.

If Chicago follows Cook County's lead and puts more restraints on local law enforcement, it could wind up facing punishment of its own by the Obama administration. That would be awkward, to say the least.

Emanuel is not backing down though. The mayor said that his proposal to rein in local police is part of a larger initiative to make Chicago the "most immigrant-friendly city in the country."

That's fitting. After all, the gang that Emanuel used to run with in Washington is working just as hard to make this one of the least immigrant-friendly administrations in history. Averaging about 400,000 deportations per year, the administration should be hitting about 1.5 million removals by the end of the summer.

Bravo for Emanuel. He's always been on the wrong side of the immigration issue, ducking for cover and even urging Democrats to vote for repressive pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation so they wouldn't be called soft on illegal immigration. He has a lot to atone for. But taking a stand against a bad program, well, that's a good start.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

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