White House Ambivalence On Immigration: Biden Says Not A Good Time For Reform, ICE Frees Migrants

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Vice President Joseph Biden told Central American leaders immigration reform will have to wait - Photo: Reuters.

Biden tells Central American leaders immigration reform will have to wait. (Photo: Reuters)

Forget the tea leaves. Divining the intentions of the Obama administration with respect to immigration reform is more like reading the leaves of a fern: conflicting signals sprout every which way, leaving observers dizzy.

On the one hand, none other than Vice President Joseph Biden said this week that this is not a good economic time to pass immigration reform that would allow for the legalization of millions of foreign workers.

On the other hand, in an unusual move, Immigration and Customs Enforcement freed a group of undocumented workers it had detained during one of its much-criticized work-site raids, giving them authorization to work while their cases are decided.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, anyone?

Biden made his remarks at a press conference in San José, the Costa Rican capital, during a one-day visit with Central American leaders. Countries in the region have received high numbers of deportees from the United States in recent years: a record 80,000 people were sent back last year, according to The Associated Press.

At the Presidential Palace in Costa Rica, Biden met with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, plus officials from Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize and the Salvadoran president-elect. The Central American leaders “pushed for a slowing of deportations,The A.P. reported.

The deportations and U.S. economic downturn have hit the region hard. During the last quarter of 2008, money sent home by Central American migrants living in the U.S. fell 4 percent, compared to the same period the previous year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Biden answered that “there will not be an immediate response to deportations.”

According to Reuters, the vice president also said,

It’s difficult to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they’re losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalize (illegal immigrants) and stop all deportation.

Asked about the extension of temporary protected status for some Central American migrants, Biden asked for “forbearance as we try to put together a comprehensive approach to deal with this.”

While the economic crisis has been raging since even before President Obama took office, his administration had not until now used it as an argument against immigration reform. The president himself recently renewed his promise of passing immigration reform and in February he had told a Spanish-language radio host he was “very committed” to making it happen.

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s comments were a personal opinion or a signal of the White House’s intentions. Biden, after all, is known for a quickness to speak that has gotten him in trouble.

The other surprising bit of immigration news came from Bellingham, Wash., the site of the only work-site raid ICE has conducted under this Democratic administration — and which prompted Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano to quickly order a review.

ICE has freed many of the more than two dozen undocumented workers detained during the Feb. 24 raid, according to The Bellingham Herald. The immigrants had been held at a detention center in Tacoma.

“I can confirm that many of the individuals … have indeed been released pending the further investigation of Yamato Engine,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lorie Dankers.

Besides their freedom, the workers also have permission to look for work.

The workers have been given a document advising them “that per the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to this case, all persons involved with the Yamato Engine Specialists … should be afforded the benefit of Deferred Action and an Employment Authorization Document, valid for the duration of this case.”

[The Bellingham Herald]

The release of undocumented workers is considered “highly unusual,” The Seattle Times remarked.

Illegal immigrants arrested in raids or other ICE actions are often detained for months until they can get a hearing before a judge. Sometimes they waive their rights to a hearing and agree to return home.

This decision seems to be more in keeping with the statements made by Napolitano and the president himself.

During the presidential campaign, Obama had criticized the raids. After the Bellingham raid, a White House official told The New York Times it was “inconsistent with (Napolitano’s) position, and the president’s position on these matters.”

Furthermore, it was revealed this week that Napolitano will soon direct enforcement officers to focus on employers rather than on undocumented workers. “The shift in emphasis will be outlined in revamped field guidelines issued to agents of (ICE) as early as this week,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.