The Borderline Spectator

No Confidence

Unionized customs and border patrol agents rebel against the Obama immigration czars.

By From the October 2010 issue

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The Obama administration has finally met a labor union it doesn't like, and the feeling is mutual. In June, a union representing 7,600 employees in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) -- affiliated with both the American Federation of Government Employees and the AFL-CIO -- issued a unanimous vote of "no confidence" against the political appointees the White House chose to oversee immigration law enforcement.

The National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council specifically named ICE director John Morton and assistant director Phyllis Coven, accusing them of having "abandoned the agency's core mission of enforcing United States Immigration Laws" and "campaigning for programs and policies related to amnesty." The union leaders further charged the Obama administration with the "creation of a special detention system for foreign nationals that exceeds the care and services provided to most United States citizens similarly incarcerated."

Organizations representing border patrol agents had already slammed their upper management at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. The AFL-CIO-affiliated National Border Patrol Council issued its no-confidence vote last year. The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO) concurred. "The U.S. has reached a critical crossroads in dealing with the illegal alien problem," NAFBPO founder Buck Brandemuehl said in a statement. "This problem must be addressed now, as it is strangling our democracy and threatening our national security."

At the same time the Obama administration was requesting funding for 1,000 additional border patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council complained that it was clandestinely reducing the number of agents along the U.S.-Mexico border by cutting the overtime hours they can work. "By lowering the statutory overtime cap nearly 15 percent through the current administrative restrictions, top-level managers in the Border Patrol are depriving Americans of desperately needed coverage along the border at a time of national crisis," Council head T. J. Bonner told the Washington Times.

These border patrol and customs agents aren't just disgruntled employees. They are outraged by an administration that is suing to block Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law -- and bragging to the United Nations that this is a positive step for human rights -- and undercutting the removal of most illegal immigrants. The people who are paid to put their lives on the line for the country's border security are outraged that their political superiors seem to have other priorities.

Consider the firestorm set off by a leaked memo outlining ways the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) could effectively legalize at least tens of thousands of illegal immigrants even in the absence of "comprehensive immigration reform." The USCIS could grant "parole in place," which comes with a work permit and the right to apply for a green card. Or it could identify a subset of illegal aliens -- like potential beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, which Congress has pointedly failed to enact -- and give them "deferred action," delaying deportation indefinitely.

Then there was this brainstorm: DHS could stop issuing the "notice to appear" letters that begin the deportation process unless the alien in question has a "significant negative immigration or criminal history." That's like a landlord being barred from issuing pay or quit notices to tenants who refuse to pay rent. In essence, these were proposals to give amnesty by executive fiat, handing out green cards and refusing to enforce immigration laws.

USCIS bureaucrats quickly backtracked, issuing a statement saying "nobody should mistake deliberation and exchange of ideas for final decisions." The Obama immigration team even vowed, "DHS will not grant deferred action or humanitarian parole to the nation's entire illegal immigrant population." How reassuring!

THE RECESSION AND STEPPED-UP enforcement have reduced illegal immigration in recent years. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the total illegal population dropped from a high of 12 million in 2007 to about 11.1 million in March 2009. Only 300,000 illegal immigrants have come in the past two years, a two-thirds drop from the inflows experienced earlier in the decade. Some observers believe this means conditions are ripe for further attrition through enforcement -- while the Obama administration touts these numbers to show that despite the amnesty advocacy, it is tough on border security.

Mainstream media outlets have been reporting that deportations are up, based on ICE projections of 400,000 deportations this fiscal year (it remains to be seen whether the actual numbers support these claims). But many of the removals have occurred under the Secure Communities program. That's an ongoing effort, begun when the Bush administration decided increased enforcement would aid its amnesty campaign, to identify illegal aliens incarcerated in state and local facilities.

Secure Communities does help relieve the burden on state and local governments. It also is a good way to remove from the country illegal immigrants who are guilty of other serious crimes. The program represents the kind of state-federal cooperation in immigration enforcement envisioned by the Arizona state legislature. But what it does not do is treat illegal immigration as a problem by itself or address any of the incentives to enter the U.S. illegally.

The Obama administration has virtually stopped worksite raids. "I think there have been very few operations that have generated arrests of undocumented workers," David Venturella, the acting director in charge of such operations, said at an Urban Institute event. According to one report, through May administrative arrests were down 81 percent from 2008, criminal arrests down 67 percent, indictments down 73 percent, and convictions down 75 percent.

In fact, that's what differentiates the Arizona law from Secure Communities -- Arizona focuses on illegal status itself as a problem and reason for referral to the federal government. The Obama administration only wants to go after illegals nailed for other crimes. In its lawsuit against Arizona, the Justice Department emphasized that its enforcement priorities were different from Arizona's.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's enforcement priorities also differ from those of the professionals charged with enforcing the country's immigration laws. The National Border Patrol Council has even taken issue with its parent organization, the AFL-CIO, for joining in the liberal crusade against Arizona. The border patrol union called one of the AFL-CIO's statements on SB 1070 "irresponsible and lacking any factual basis."

Their words for the people President Obama has placed in charge of them are even stronger. But the customs and border patrol agents are about to find out that in this rare instance, the White House is willing to turn a deaf ear to union labor. 

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.